Skeptical Investigations

Paranormalia readers will enjoy the Skeptical About Skeptics website, which has just launched. There’s a lot of background about the various luminaries in the skeptic movement, along with critical articles that have been written about them and their doings over the years.

The most heavily featured seems to be Michael Shermer, with ten articles (compared with six about Richard Wiseman and eight about James Randi). I thought that interesting, especially having recently read the article in Scientific American, in which he describes his own encounter with the paranormal (definitely worth a read if you haven’t seen it).

This is actually not a brand new site, it’s a revamped version of Rupert Sheldrake’s Skeptical Investigations, which was around for quite a while. (The old link now connects to the new site.) The new editor is Cathi Carol, who I have been in touch with since the brouhaha over the attack on Rupert’s Wikipedia page last year. She doesn’t seem to get a credit on the site, so let’s hear it for her here! This is an attractively presented and readable production.

Well done, Rupert and Cathi!

 Glimpsing Heaven

I 'll be posting here soon, but in the meantime here’s Henry Brand, aka our own Rabbitdawg, with a review of a new book on NDE-type experiences. Thanks, Dawg!

I don't know if you're familiar with an influential Black Power poet from the early 1970's named Gil Scott-Heron, but he was famous during his day for his poem/song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Today, it would be considered soft Jazz rap, and I kinda like it, but Scott-Heron's point is what's pertinent to this review. The gist of his message is, when social paradigms are changed, they are changed from within. The gatekeepers are ultimately ignored.

I firmly believe that a revolution in the  public's perception of spirituality and the paranormal (among other things) is happening right before our eyes (the SPR Wiki project is one of the cogs in that social change machine). Responsible, professional journalism will be the driving force that will make it happen. Books and websites by scientists are good, but it takes talented writing to bring the message home.

All of this is my roundabout way of bringing your attention to yet another at-first-I-was-a-sceptic-but-now-that-I-have-researched-the-topic-I-am-a-believer book by a pedigreed journalist that I have only just started to read.

Here's the kicker - it's published by National Geographic. And it's paranormal friendly. Admittedly, National Geographic isn't a prestigious peer reviewed organ like Nature, JAMA, or the British Medical Journal, but it does command a great degree of intellectual respect in certain quarters, and it normally tends to have a materialist verve.   The book, Glimpsing Heaven, has a standard cover showing doors opening into the sky (why do they keep doing that?), and the title sounds like so many other books, but author Judy Bachrach is no slouch, as you can see by her creds at the Amazon link. Even though I have only made it past the first chapter, I am hooked.  

She avoids the term near-death experience as much as possible because she considers it inaccurate. The experiencers were actually temporarily dead. Rather, she uses phrases like death experiencers or death travelers. For those of us comfortable with the NDE phrase, this can be a little jarring at first, but I get her point.

The real difference here is how well she drills down with her research interviews.
For example, we're all familiar with the now deceased Pam Reynolds story. Ms. Bachrach takes it deeper. She interviews family and friends and walks away with a richer picture. Did you know that Pam Reynolds suffered a stroke shortly after her stand-down surgery was completed? She recovered nicely. Her psychic and healing abilities were legendary among those close to her, but she never wanted to make it publicly known. This ability was both humorous in hindsight, yet tragic in other ways.    Her daughters remember teenagehood as an affectionate nightmare because they always had to tell the truth, Mom knew what they were thinking anyway. If they tried to sneak out of the house at night, Reynolds would wake up and catch them. They were frequently embarrassed when their Mother would spontaneously embrace a stranger in public, whisper something in the stranger's ear, and then both of them would start crying. Empathy on steroids.  

On the other hand, Pam Reynolds didn't venture far from home unless she had to. She was distressed by the darkness of the thoughts she could read going through the minds of so many passers-by. She wasn't clinically depressed, in fact she was usually cheerful, but she was also fragile. Forever changed by what she called her transcendent encounter with The Knowing.  

Then there was the time when one of her daughters friends lost her purse, Pam inexplicably "knew" it could be found in another girls hall closet underneath some coats. Or the time Pam visited a teenage boy in a hospital while he was in a coma and whispered "I don't know about you, but I want to call the pizza dude and get some slices, because I hate the food here". The boy woke up, smiled and recovered.

This link is to the US Amazon site, where there are significantly more reviews. The UK version isn't available for Kindle yet, and the book only has one three star review. (The reviewer is bitchin' because Ms. Bachrach failed to talk about Muslims, and didn't attempt to offer solutions to current world problems. sigh )

It may take another generation, maybe two, but I doubt it will take much longer for the general public to become more comfortable and outspoken about their paranormal and spiritual experiences, Dawkins and Randi be damned. Journalists, at least successful ones are in touch with the beat of the street. I like to compare the information explosion happening right now with the internet and e-publishing with the invention of the printing press. It might getting off to a shaky start, but as folks discover that they aren't alone, they will seek out more information and the company of like-minded others to share their experiences and thoughts with, and change will happen. I bet the farm on it.

Okay, I don't own a farm, But if I did, I would. :)

Henry Brand  

ISHAR and Open Sciences

I mentioned these two projects in a recent post. A crowd funding appeal is now underway for ISHAR, the Integrative Studies Historical Archive and Repository, and although still ‘under construction, the Open Sciences web portal has quite a lot of stuff to poke around in.

According to its website, also still under construction, ISHAR is a project created by the mind/body community to provide a ‘world-collection of cultural and scientific knowledge, research and discussion with an emphasis on integrative medicine and consciousness studies, including all notable subjects therein’.

The project is led by Deepak Chopra, and has support from the likes of author Bernardo Kastrup, parapsychologists Dean Radin and Marilyn Schlitz, various scientists, medical directors, healers, etc. I spoke a while ago with Rome Viharo, an experienced web media professional who is closely involved in building the website. He says that as well as providing a comprehensive database of scientific research, the plan is to run themed discussions on different areas on a quarterly basis.

ISHAR’s appeal is asking for a $20 donation (or however much folks can afford.) I think this project is going to get traction and I urge readers to donate.

Rupert Sheldrake’s Open Sciences is also worth watching (although as far as I know it has not asked for donations). Rupert describes it as ‘a portal for open-minded scientific research, listing open-minded scientists, linking to relevant web sites, books and journals, containing a selection of videos and essays, and with a series of blogs on open questions in the sciences.’

I sense a more directly confrontational approach, and on a wider front, than ISHAR. The mission statement begins:

We believe that the sciences are being constricted by dogmatism, and in particular by a subservience to the philosophy of materialism, the doctrine that matter is the only reality and that the mind is nothing but the physical activity of the brain. We believe that the sciences would be more scientific if they were free to investigate the natural world in an un-dogmatic spirit, following the scientific methods of data collecting, hypothesis testing and critical discussion.

The site has also published a detailed Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science, an outcome of the summit of scientists that took place at the University of Arizona in February. Sample extract:

... the nearly absolute dominance of materialism in the academic world has seriously constricted the sciences and hampered the development of the scientific study of mind and spirituality. Faith in this ideology, as an exclusive explanatory framework for reality, has compelled scientists to neglect the subjective dimension of human experience. This has led to a severely distorted and impoverished understanding of ourselves and our place in nature.

Both projects are scheduled for launch in October, at which time I expect there will be a fair bit of publicity. The SPR’s Encyclopedia continues to make good progress, and hopefully will appear next spring or summer.

Talking With Jenny Cockell

At the weekend I drove up to Northamptonshire to interview Jenny Cockell, author of Yesterday’s Children. She turned out to be a delightful lady, and very forthcoming about her experiences - as one might expect from the author of three books.

Yesterday’s Children describes her memories of having been Mary Sutton, the mother of several children in a village north of Dublin and her successful efforts to trace the family. Past Lives Future Lives describes the life of a Japanese girl in the nineteenth century, which ended aged seventeen by drowning. Journeys Through Time, which I have been reading recently, is a sort of complete retrospective of all her memories and the very considerable research she undertook to verify them, along with descriptions of other types of psychic experience.

It turns out that Cockell remembers quite a number of past lives. The Mary Sutton memories were the most detailed, perhaps because of the guilt occasioned by having to abandon several young children to fend for themselves. (It turned out that most were sent to orphanages, as the father was deemed unfit to look after them.) The Japanese girl was never identified by name, largely because of the inadequacy of record-keeping at the time. But she thinks she managed to trace the likely family, being the owners of the house and land which, after a good deal of effort, she and other researchers identified as being a good fit with her detailed memories.

Mary Sutton was not even the most recent life – she also remembers having been a small boy named Charles Savage during the Second World War, who died aged six after being run over in the street. She says she often wakes up in the morning with the feeling of her lower legs having been crushed. Relatively recent investigations led to the discovery of the boy’s younger brother, who accepts her story (as by-and-large did Mary Sutton’s children.

There were brief lives in eighteenth century France, one which involved being sold into service aged eight, another as the young son of aristocrats (the clothes were stunning, she says). There was one as a young girl who ran away from a troubled home and expired of cold and starvation in a stable, and another as a deaf boy in the middle ages. And there was a Neolithic one as a young hunter, which she says was a happy existence.

As we learned from Ian Stevenson’s research, children who have memories of a very recent life are, if not exactly common, not that rare either – especially in south and south-east Asia. But these memories almost always fade by around age seven. It’s also quite common for adults to ‘remember past lives’ under hypnosis, and while these images seem realistic - and often conform closely to historical details that the person is unlikely to have learned anywhere else - there’s seldom much in the way of verification. Cockell must be almost unique in having – and retaining throughout adulthood – spontaneous memories of past lives, many of which have been found to closely match actual circumstances.

That might be held to encourage scepticism. A common tactic is to argue that past-life memories are imagined and the matches spurious (this is the basis of Joe Nickell’s critique of Cockell). It’s said that if you search hard enough – as she did – you’re bound to turn up an exact match sooner or later. But this takes no account of the rich texture of some of the memories, as is often the case in many instances of children’s memories, and is also true here. For instance with regard to Mary Sutton, Cockell had a strong memory of standing on a wooden jetty looking out across the water and shivering in a threadbare shawl. It was an isolated fragment, and although it was persistent she had no means of understanding the circumstances. When she finally met one of Mary’s sons he explained that he had occasional employment on an island that had to be accessed by boat, and in the evenings his mother had often waited on the jetty for him to return.

I asked Cockell how she felt about the memories at first. Did she know that they were unusual? She said that as a child she assumed everyone had them and you just put up with it. No one spoke about them because you just didn’t, she supposed - it was a taboo subject. When she first started to mention them, and heard her mother referring to them in the context of ‘beliefs that some people held’, she had no idea what her mother was talking about. It was a big shock.

Although her past life memories were the ostensible reason for my visit – I shall be talking about the topic next month (see below) – I was just as interested in her general psychic experiences. Psychics are often frustratingly bad at conveying what this actually feels like, but Cockell is highly articulate in this regard.

She talked about the ‘imaginary friends’ that children sometimes describe. In her case they were two young men in Second World War army uniform. One chattered incessantly, and could be quite annoying. The other was quieter, and ‘listened’. She sat on the wall in the playground and talked with them - not out loud, it was a sort of mental thing. But the figures themselves weren’t in her head, they seemed to be actually there in the environment, she says. She found that to make them come she needed to get into a calm, meditative state of mind.

Then one day they said they wouldn’t come any more, as she needed to grow, and focus on this world. Today she finds it rather sad that these companions disappear as you grow older.

How is one to say that these invisible people aren’t really imaginary? She reckons there are two types. If the child says the friend sits on her arm and talks to her, it’s probably made-up, performing the same function as a doll. If the child says, ‘He’s a very old man, and he’s quiet, and sits in that armchair over there in the corner’, then he’s likely to exist on some objective level. (A young grandson once complained about ‘the man in your garden’. Asked for more detail, he said the man was old and grumpy. Cockell told him not to worry about it, as she’d seen him too when she first moved in.)

I was curious about her experiences of seeing the future. She said it happens a lot, but she tends to lack the confidence to accept that’s what it is, a presentiment of something that will happen later, and only accepts it when it happens.

She also talked about time-slips. On a visit to the Blue John Cavern in the Peak District she watched men on high ladders chipping away at the rock face. It looked dangerous, and she wondered vaguely how they managed to square that with the health-and-safety regulations. When she mentioned the scene to the tour guides they said there were no men on ladders. Nothing of the kind. No one else was aware of them either. She'd seen pictures of this activity in the tour literature, and found it interesting that the old ways were still being followed.

I asked about her descriptions of the state between death and rebirth. She has a seemingly vivid memory of dying as Mary Sutton, which she described as a very sudden separation, like someone cutting the elastic. What happened then? I’ll end with the description she gives in Journeys Through Time, which is rather good:

I was still looking back at my now vacant body when I seemed to be drawn from behind - almost sucked - into a long narrow tube, like a fold in space, a dark vortex that wrapped round me and drew me into another dimension. Through it I travelled backwards, feeling somehow folded as though in a loose foetal position. Slowly the hospital room drifted away from me, growing smaller and smaller until finally it faded completely.

Now, intensely bright beams of light began to emerge on either side of me, like the shafts of a rainbow, though much, much brighter. To describe them as light seems somehow insufficient: the rainbow colours were much more vibrant than normal light, just as a real rainbow is much more vibrant than one drawn in crayons. The shafts of light passed by me at different angles, then spread out as though radiating from the central focus.

I don't remember the actual moment when I emerged into a different place, but I know that I did emerge into somewhere very gentle and peaceful, far beyond any normal understanding of the words. This part is not clear in my memory, although it seems to be the stage remembered most clearly by people who have had near death experiences... All I can remember at this time is that for a while there was a lot going on, some of which was perhaps to do with other people and some to my adjustment to my new state of being. What remains most clearly with me is the stage that followed: it is still crystal clear.

I found myself floating inside something like a soap bubble. Above, below and all around me were other bubbles that I knew to be people. I was bodyless, and this didn't matter at all, since there was no need for a body. The other bubbles seemed to have the peaceful energies of other people, also without bodies yet seemingly complete, and I felt a total, peaceful empathy with them.

The sensation was of being almost like a single cell within a whole constellation of cells, yet also of being far too much of an individual entity to be contained in one small unit. I was still aware of being myself, an individual soul. Every bubble glowed brightly with an energy that I took to be the basic life force that is ourselves, and they pulsated at rhythms that varied from slow heartbeat to a steady vibration.

There was a great deal of background light all around, as though the whole life energy was expressed as light. It was difficult to see beyond it – it seemed to be reflected a little like the reflection of headlights in fog. Some of it took the forms of strands like energy bands, mainly white through to blue in colour. The overall feeling was of white light energy.

Enveloping everything was a feeling of calm in which nothing seemed to matter or hurt or cause anxiety. Here the existence I had left behind seemed no more than a vague memory. Perhaps it simply became less important as time passed – though the notion of time itself had almost no meaning. There was no demarcation between day and night, just constant, peaceful light.

I shall be talking more about Jenny Cockell during the SPR’s Study Day ‘Reincarnation in the Western World’, in central London on October 25. (I’ll also describe two children’s cases: James Leininger and Cameron Macauley. The other speakers are Erlendur Haraldsson, Guy Playfair and Matthew Colborn.)

When I get round to it I’ll post an edited video of the interview here.

Journeys Through Time is £8.08 (paperback) £5.49 (Kindle) in the UK and $13.04 (paperback) and $8.94 (Kindle) in the US.

Online Encyclopedia Update

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.

The In-Betweeners

I read a great story in a private forum recently about Marcello Truzzi, the sceptic who co-founded CSICOP with Paul Kurtz and others, but fell out with them over their militancy. I don’t suppose anyone will mind if I retell it, but I won’t reveal the source.

Truzzi was seated next to a parapsychologist at a conference dinner, and the two were arguing about whether or not remote viewing had been proved. The parapsychologist challenged Truzzi to try it then and there. Truzzi grudgingly agreed.

It was decided that the viewing would be precognitive, with the target selected after Truzzi’s experience. Truzzi was taken through the protocol, then asked to describe what imagery he saw.

He said he saw a circle. It was hard and smooth and probably metallic, possibly yellow, but at one point in the circle there was something with texture. I asked him to make a drawing. He drew a rectangle with a bird on a branch in it.

A waitress was called over and asked to write down objects in her field of vision. She chose a salt shaker, a pearl necklace that one of the women was wearing, a fork, a wine glass, flowers in a vase, and the parapsychologist’s signet ring. A second waitress was handed the list and asked to select a single object. She chose the ring.

This was an exact hit. I can’t publish the images here, but it’s a rectangular bloodstone, dark green with flecks of red, set on a gold ring. The stone is engraved with two heraldic images, one of which looks like a bird on a perch (described as a ‘kingfisher atop a bar of bunting’).

The incident was witnessed by several other people at the dinner. Truzzi found it embarrassing and insisted on being given the session data, including the order tickets on which the waitresses had created the target set and target selection.

Later the parapsychologist reminded Truzzi about the episode and challenged him about his scepticism.

There was a moment of silence as we both sat there remembering this experience. Then Marcello said, "I am much more effective and influential as a reasonable skeptic than as a convert."  We never discussed it again.

Truzzi was surely right. He filled a rather important role, that of the moderate sceptic who was prepared to confront the militants. Psi advocates see him almost as an ally in that respect. But how useful would it have been for him to express conviction about the reality of psi? In that case he would have been one of many, his influence diminished, a necessary task neglected.

People who straddle the boundary are rather rare – and intriguing. Another example is William James. In his recent biography Michael Tymn is critical of James’s ‘fence-sitting’ with regard to survival. Considering the strength of Piper’s phenomena, which was sufficient to convince Oliver Lodge, Richard Hodgson and James Hyslop, why did James continue to be so ambivalent? Tymn considers this a lack of courage on James’s part.

A reviewer – Alan Gauld in a recent issue of the SPR Journal – disagrees. He points to the ‘brilliant’ attack that James made on materialist view of consciousness and his ‘forthright’ declaration of acceptance of psychic phenomena, almost alone among professional psychologists of the day. Far from being a fence-sitter, Gauld argues, James had fundamental doubts about survival, based on genuine dismay at the state of the departed as ‘a vacancy, triviality and incoherence painful to think of.’

In a later issue Tymn pushes back. He points out that reference to his experiences with Piper are glaringly absent from The Varieties of Religious Experience. Hodgson, having seen the proofs, was perplexed that James never once addressed the survival issue, the very crux of religion. So in a hastily added postscript, apparently added to justify the omission, James concedes that although religion means immortality for most people, facts are lacking for ‘spirit return’, despite his admiration for the efforts of psychical researchers, and being ‘somewhat impressed by their favourable conclusions’.

Yet James often in his writings referred obliquely, and sympathetically, to the idea of survival. At the end of Varieties he states:

I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W.K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word ‘bosh!’ Humbug is humbug, even though it bears the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds.

For all this, James ‘continually beat around the bush’ on the survival issue, disguising it in such terms as ‘the eternal’. Tymn writes:

He said that a person should be content in his or her faith that there is a higher power, even if that higher power does not promise life after death... In effect, he was saying that the blind faith of religion is enough, whereas the goal of psychical research was to move from disbelief or blind faith to conviction through scientifically-developed evidence.

In short, James deliberately took the point of view of the ‘rigorously scientific’ disbeliever, on the grounds that tactically it is better to believe too little than too much. Tymn takes this to mean that he preferred the ‘safe’ approach, one in which he didn’t have to put his reputation on the line.’

Is this criticism of James justified? Tymn’s assessment did confirm my sense that James was deliberately ambivalent about survival. And it’s natural to feel that this was a lost opportunity. If James, a pioneering psychologist with enormous influence, had swung behind the survivalist convictions of other credible people who investigated Piper – notably Hodgson, Myers, Lodge and Hyslop - then perhaps the academic world would now be taking mediumship and the concept of survival more seriously.

To be fair, Tymn doesn’t go this far. But I’m sure some people think this, and it’s almost certainly false. The only effect of James’s espousing a belief in survival would have been to weaken his intellectual standing – he would have been a sadly diminished figure, both in his own lifetime and in posterity. But as a pioneering scientist, James’s dedicated interest in religious experience has helped generations of people to think about it in ways that might not otherwise be possible.

It’s certainly possible to imagine both Truzzi and James going further down a path towards conviction. Psi-advocates might wish it for their sake, believing that it’s better for anyone to understand the truth, or in order to have influential people in their camp (not understanding that such influence would vanish they moment they crossed the border). Conversely, it greatly irritates sceptics that someone of James’s stature should have dabbled in woo, and they make excuses for him, for instance that he was ‘bamboozled’ by evil charlatans.

So of course they get attacked from both sides. But I don’t believe they, and others like them, are insincere. They just happen to grow into a particular view of things - by an unusual combination of temperament, experience and circumstances – and the debates about science, psi and religion are all the richer for it.

Psi Encyclopedias

I’ve been corresponding with Patricia Pearson, author of Opening Heaven’s Door which I reviewed here recently. She says she did a long radio interview and afterwards ‘a smart woman who'd had an NDE in 1952 listened to it, and remarked: "I can't believe the interviewer asked you the same questions they asked me in 1980!” ’

It’s the big anomaly. We think of our society as being forward-looking, hungry for scientific knowledge. Yet on these matters we seem to glory in our ignorance. Of course we can’t say for certain what goes on with near-death visions, apparitions, telepathic experiences, and all the rest. But after decades of serious research we do know something about these things. So it’s odd that media commentators, and the sceptics they invite onto their shows, seem mostly unaware of the work done by scientific researchers.

I wrote Randi’s Prize with the idea of informing an agnostic audience about this work and explaining the arguments. Against the odds I hoped the book might perhaps reach some opinion-makers in the media. But I knew from my own experience that you don’t gain full understanding about anything from reading a single book – you have to study it in depth in order to master it. So I planned also to create a companion website where readers could follow up some of the discussions with more information, and perhaps read some of the original reports.

Alas, that turned out to be beyond my capabilities. I did actually set up the site and uploaded some links and material. But then I got behind with my professional work, so I had to abandon it (the little content I put together is here on the right).

Then last year two rather interesting things happened. The first started when a reader sent me a link to a site called Guerrilla Skepticism, a group of hyper-sceptics who edit Wikipedia, ostensible to improve the profiles of sceptic spokespeople and give them more prominence. But as we know, a lot of this ‘improving’ is also targeted at pages about paranormal experiences and psi-research, to the extent that they are mostly now misleading, if not barbarously offensive.

I wrote about this and it led to a bit of discussion. One view was that any attempt to tangle with hostile editors on Wikipedia was pointless. It’s far too difficult, and anyway, sensible people don’t bother with Wikipedia because they know how unreliable it is.

I don’t agree with the last part. I use Wikipedia all the time for my journalistic work, and have found it invaluable for getting a basic understanding of country politics and economics, for instance. It won’t necessarily occur to most people that there are problems with the pages on scientific issues like psi, unless they come with some prior knowledge. So they will assume that the sceptical comment is more informed than it actually is.

Another view was that something should be done about it. At this time Rupert Sheldrake was in fighting mood, having just been caught up in the controversy over his TED talk, and announced his intention to take up the challenge on Wikipedia. We talked about this together, and I had some notion of trying to clean up some of the parapsychology pages. But then sceptics made the first move by attacking Rupert’s own Wikipedia page, where they deleted anything about his scientific standing and credentials, and did whatever they could to weaken the credibility of his research.

A battle ensued over the summer months, in which editors sympathetic to Rupert Sheldrake and his work would try to revert the hostile edits, only to have their changes instantly undone. The justification was always that Wikipedia should never give undue prominence to ‘fringe’ beliefs. Since many of the site’s supposedly neutral arbitrators, and its founder Jimmy Wales, are themselves unsympathetic, it was difficult to make headway. A Sheldrake sympathiser who seemed to be winning the argument would simply be banned for allegedly having broken some rule or other. (Craig Weiler has graphically described all this in his book Psi Wars.)

It was dispiriting to watch, but I had enormous admiration for the people who patiently keep up the fight in the face of thuggish provocation. It’s thanks to them that Sheldrake’s and a few other pages maintain some semblance of balance. Frankly that sort of thing is beyond me. It’s possible that in the long run that the way Wikipedia is run will change, allowing serious psi-research to be fairly represented. But I can’t see that happening soon, and every day that goes by quite possibly hundreds more people around the world are effectively absorbing falsehoods about the true nature of psi experiences.

There was also some talk of creating a rival resource to Wikipedia. That would have been my preference, but having already tried and failed to do something of the kind on my own I knew what a huge undertaking it would be.

That brings me to the second curious event of last year. In February I learned that I had been appointed to the governing council of the Society for Psychical Research, which has an office and library in Kensington in central London. I’ve been a member for years, and occasionally give lectures and write book reviews for its journal, but hadn’t had much involvement with its affairs. So it was a surprise to discover, when I attended my first meeting, that a substantial bequest had been donated by a deceased member for the purpose of publicising psi-research, and that after years of keen expectation the money was now sitting in the bank waiting to be disbursed.

The legacy came from Nigel Buckmaster, who had experienced a powerful mystical vision following the death of his mother in 1966; the following day he learned that his sister had experienced the same thing, in which she also received a communication that was meaningful to them both. Buckmaster contacted the SPR, who got someone to write it up (I posted the report here a couple of weeks ago.) He also started to study the literature of psi-research, and felt – exactly as I did, when I first started reading it – that it deserved to be better known. So he decided to will the proceeds of his house to the SPR for the purpose of publishing a book that would analyse some of the best cases of psi and survival.

In the years preceding his decease the idea was developed into a scheme to create a powerful online database of such cases. The aim was to help integrate psi-research into that general area of mainstream science that addresses anomalies in all kinds of fields. But at the February meeting disagreements emerged about the costs involved, and shortly afterwards the project was abandoned.

The council then returned to the idea of publishing a book, as Buckmaster originally envisaged. But there are already many books on survival phenomena, and a single book would hardly do justice the size of the bequest. So it was eventually decided, among other things, to expand Buckmaster’s original concept and create a free online encyclopedia of psi-research. Earlier this year I applied for the job of editing it and was accepted.

Thinking about it now, I realise it might after all have been possible to create something of the kind on a purely voluntary basis. It’s a question of going to researchers and writers and asking them to contribute an article on their subject of expertise. Given the Wikipedia problem everyone sees the urgency of that, and naturally the idea has occurred to other people. There are plans to add parapsychology content to Citizendium (a baby rival to Wikipedia which presumably will grow up to be better behaved), and also to Wikiversity, although it’s unclear whether that will escape the attention of hostile editors.

Perhaps more significant at present is the WISE project conceived by John Reed and backed by the Society for Scientific Exploration (WISE stands for World Institute for Scientific Exploration). This is a giant wiki-database that will see thousands of entries loaded for journals, subjects and individuals who have figured in parapsychology, psychical research, survival research, Spiritualism, ufology, alternative medicine, and related fields. It’s open to anyone to submit content, but I gather most of the effort is being directed at collecting existing material from books and journals.

The SPR resource will be smaller, with perhaps up to 1000 entries over the course of three to four years, compared with the 4000 that WISE already plans. It will also be more narrowly focused on psi-related subjects. But a lot of this material will be newly-created in-depth summaries of the main topics and case studies of key investigations and experiments, linked directly where possible to the original reports. Being funded means we have control over the way the material is shaped and presented. Hopefully we can generate enough content to launch within a year, and carry on adding new items in the following two to three years.

As far as editing and uploading material goes, clearly neither project can provide open access as Wikipedia does. In our case, articles will be vetted and improved by a fairly tight forum of active editors, and by experts in the topic.

Naturally the question arises of why there should be more than one resource of the kind. If we want to create something that rivals Wikipedia as a source that Internet users go to for information on psi-related topics, isn’t it better to cooperate rather than compete?

I’ve discussed this with WISE and we both see serious practical difficulties in joining forces, however. Certainly we won’t duplicate our efforts, but trying to combine two projects that have a very different ethos and starting points will cause delays and confusions. My own view is that having two or more alternative sources to Wikipedia could be as good as having just one, as long as readers don’t find exactly the same material on each. That said, we plan to keep an open mind about this.

These are early days, and I’m busy laying the groundwork and recruiting writers. There are many people out there whose work I admire and who I plan to contact over the coming weeks with a view to writing an article or two. (If you’re a writer or researcher with expert knowledge on a topic, and you’d like to contribute, then please get in touch with me at the address at the top of the page.)

For me personally, this is the realisation of a long-held ambition. It’s not just psi phenomena that interest me, it’s the extraordinary fact that although they’re so widely experienced – as attested in an ever-growing cascade of books and articles – they aren’t publicly acknowledged. Our society is schizoid about it, which fascinates me. I have some ideas about why it is, and I’ll have a shot at discussing them in my next book.

But if we think, as I do, that the balance is wrong, and that we can’t go on forever pretending these things are spurious, then something has to change. And that ‘something’ is surely the state of public understanding about psi research – if it’s ever to improve there must be easily accessible sources of unbiased information. I know many people believe it’s actually scientists that need to be convinced, which is true as well. But scientists too are members of the public and on this topic probably get as much of their information from Wikipedia as everyone else.

Every conversation I have about this, every radio interview discussion, every confrontation with a sceptic, quickly comes back to that one central point: the invisibility of serious psi research to the general public. As things stand, the rhetorical question, ‘But where’s the evidence?’ leaves me stumped. Oddly, it has be answered in a geographical sense. Knowledge normally resides in scientific texts and journals that can be accessed in universities and educational libraries, but because of the taboo that’s not often the case here. So where does it reside? You can join a research society like the SPR to gain access to it, but there’s a subscription fee to consider. Probably the best place to find it is in books that can be acquired from Amazon. But that’s a barrier too: most people don’t buy books to answer a casual inquiry, only to follow up something they have developed a real interest in.

That’s why a dedicated free encyclopedia of parapsychology could make a difference. Almost all of us visit Wikipedia at some time to satisfy queries – it’s the sixth most visited website and has created a certain expectation. The Google-keyword-click-Wikipedia-click routine has become a reflex, and we can exploit that newly created habit to our advantage. The channel of misinformation that Internet users are now exposed to can be diverted to a much cleaner, clearer source - detailed and unbiased articles and case studies that require minimal investment of time and none of money to read.

It won’t happen straight away, and Wikipedia is likely to retain its dominance at the top of the search results for a while yet. But these new resources will start to make inroads: over time their presence will raise the level of the public debate. For one thing, I expect to start seeing much more detailed references to the psi-research literature in articles by mainstream journalists. For many it will be a revelation. They will learn for the first time that these phenomena are not only much more widely experienced than they realised but have been extensively studied by highly credentialled scientific researchers, also that these researchers on the whole believe they can’t easily be explained by materialist science as it stands and – contrary to the story told on Wikipedia – have good arguments.

In the longer term, debunking sceptics – and the sceptical movement generally – will have to raise their game. On radio and TV, the chortling dismissals, hand waving and harrumphing won’t work as long as the interviewer can douse them with facts quickly downloaded from a reputable source. Nor will sceptics be able to rely on smug generalisations and references to a few high profile debunkings and fraudulent cases if they find themselves being instantly challenged with much stronger cases. To be effective they’re going to have to get to know something about the subject – and what a refreshing change that will be.

Beyond that, it seems natural to me that people who experience paranormal phenomena – at a relative’s deathbed, a child talking of a previous life, an apparition - should be able quickly to discover what is known about it. Yes, they can poke around on Amazon and find a book to buy, and of course there are some quite good Internet resources on topics like NDEs and past life memories. But my guess is that many don’t look – the experience just sits somewhere in the back of their mind as a curiosity, something they daren’t speak about for fear of being ridiculed and have to try to make sense of on their own (writers like Patricia Pearson and Penny Sartori who seek out experiencers hear this over and over.) It will be satisfying to know that one day soon this need can be quickly and comprehensively satisfied.

Opening Heaven's Door

Patricia Pearson is a Toronto-based author and journalist who has written a book called Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying Tell Us About Where They’re Going. It was mentioned here in a recent post and sparked some admiring comments. Having had a chance to read it now, I must say I too am impressed. (There's also a good interview with the author here.)

It’s fair to say that most people who get interested in psi and survival come to it from a personal experience, and that’s the case here. Pearson’s sister, the single mother of teenagers, fell ill with aggressive breast cancer. One night she woke to experience a profound vision of joy and healing. Was it the effect of people praying for her, she wondered?

The next day she learned that their father had died during the night. It was natural to link the two events, and Pearson’s subsequent journey of discovery revealed how common it is for people to have experiences of all kinds in relation to their own deaths, or the deaths of loved ones.

This reminded me of a book I read a few years ago by a British journalist Justine Picardie, who likewise embarked on a personal inquiry following the death of her sister from breast cancer. Justine seemed keen to believe her sister had survived death, if she could find convincing evidence. However her subsequent encounters with researchers and mediums were somewhat clumsy and half-hearted, and she encountered only silence.

By contrast Pearson started out with personal experience. She describes Katherine on her deathbed being pleased and interested by what she seemed to be observing, ‘as if she were engaged in a novel and pleasant adventure.’

She looked gorgeous, as if lit from within. Sometimes, she would have happy whispered conversations with a person I couldn’t see. At other times, she’d stare at the ceiling of her room as a full panoply of expressions played across her face: puzzled, amused, skeptical, surprised.

She just couldn’t find the words to describe it.

When one day Katherine announced she was leaving, she could have survived for weeks or months, but in fact died two days later. Pearson discovered that this is very common – patients can be crisply precise about when they will die, and far more accurate than doctors. (My father on his deathbed suddenly said, ‘I’m going to die tomorrow’, in the same tone as he might have said he was going to the dentist – and he did, even though there was nothing to suggest he couldn’t have gone on for a while longer.)

Yet more interestingly, Pearson also learned that the dying often use the language of a journey to convey the imminence of their departure, quizzing those around them about what arrangements have been made with regard to passports and tickets, and so on.

The book essentially covers Pearson’s research into all kinds of dreams, visions and intimations, from Nearing Death Awareness (termed Death Bed Visions in the early research), psi dreams and visions, apparitions coinciding with death, NDEs, and so on. I was particularly engaged by a chapter on Third Man experiences, where people in situations of great danger find themselves accompanied by an invisible yet somehow tangible presence, who guides them to safety.

Some of the material is published and may be familiar to readers, for instance the account by Yvonne Kason of her dramatic air crash into a frozen lake and the near-death experience it led to. But there are many similar anecdotes culled from Pearson’s own research. All of this is skilfully interwoven with surveys and scientific findings of various kinds, cultural, historical and religious references, and intelligent musings.

Several things make this book stand out. One is the lightness of touch. As a journalist Pearson knows how to present topics in an engaging way, with the eye of the novelist. There is a serious intent, though – in fact the book can be seen as a patient reproof to the response, ‘couldn’t you just have been imagining it?’ Always calm and equable, one nevertheless senses a certain steely impatience with the pretence that such things don’t really have any significance, and that to talk about them as if they do is a sure sign of credulity.

Professional experts like Peter Fenwick emphasise that hallucinations resulting from illness and drugs are unpleasant and fragmentary, whereas these are coherent and meaningful to the highest degree. But unless the point is driven home it remains easy for an agnostic to dismiss it as ‘something that happens in the brain’. That is dealt with in gratifying depth here. Pearson presses experiencers to reveal just how strongly they distinguished the event from anything else that had encountered, and to say why it reassured and sometimes changed them.

I also think that Pearson is absolutely right to emphasise the primacy of subjective experience. A book full of anecdotes is reassuring to sceptics, who tell themselves that anecdotes aren’t science. But theirs, if they only knew it, is the science of a dead world inhabited by zombies and robots. We need to share what we feel and experience, in order to communicate.

People like me bang on about scientific evidence and how it is to be interpreted. Her approach is to quietly layer experience on experience, to show just how completely normal all this really is and how absurd to repress it. Comfortingly, the book hints that more people are willing to speak up – the doctors and medical staff who observe death-bed phenomena, the hospice carers and relatives who witness it, and even on occasion share in the visions themselves – and leaves one with a sense that the mood is slowly changing.

Yet in a rather poignant coda, Pearson learns that she is as much subject to the general reticence as everyone else. She hears a medium in a public meeting say things that clearly come from her sister, but keeps quiet, and only afterwards confesses to him privately that she knew the statements were meant for her. Breaking a taboo is hard, even for those of us who would love to see it happen.


Yes I know, I’ve been bunking off, bad boy, but I’m back now. Sort of. Here’s a little medley of items - a soupçon, if you will - to fill space while I try to think of something interesting to say.

First, the link to a podcast interview I did with Jim Harold a few weeks ago. I haven’t listened to it, but I remember the topic of James Randi came up.

The Institute of Arts and Ideas has asked me to draw attention to the debate they recently recorded that features Rupert Sheldrake, which of course I’m glad to do. The blurb reads:

Our understanding of the body is permeated with mechanical metaphors, but is it an error to believe that the body is a machine? Should we find a new adventure in alternative metaphors of the body? Author of The Science Delusion, Rupert Sheldrake, Oxford neuroscientist Colin Blakemore and award-winning novelist Joanna Kavenna reimagine the human being.

Check out this article from a 1960s issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (which I’ve posted as a separate item). It’s about a 1960s out-of-body-mystical type experience. I have particular reasons for publishing it here, which I will come back to later.

Finally, it gives me great pleasure to welcome to this space Henry Brand, aka our very own Rabbitdawg. He emailed me this book recommendation a few days ago, which I felt was too good not to share.

That’s it from Robert, now over to Henry:

I feel compelled to tip you off about a wonderfully refreshing new book concerning the paranormal that came out on May 13th. I have never heard of the author before, nor have I read the I have it on order...wait a minute...uh...I can explain.

The book, Opening Heaven's Door: What The Dying May Be Trying to Tell Us About Where They Are Going, is by Patricia Pearson, a professional pedigreed journalist who has never written about spirituality or the paranormal before. I got wind of her on one of the many Facebook posts The Human Consciousness Project puts out. The post linked to an interview by the author, and it intrigued me enough to give it a shot. Normally my life is too busy to listen to near-hour long audio interviews, but... I was mesmerized.

Seriously, so much of what passes for paranormal literature these days is just a repackaging of the same tired old anecdotes, arguments, theories and bitchin' about sceptics that first started coming to the forefront thirty years ago. Every now and then someone brings a new delicious and/or nutritious entree to the discussion table, yet so often it seems like there's nothing new under the Sun, or The Source Light, or whatever.

But this lady has a heartfelt focus that energizes the subject. She's done her research. As I pointed out earlier, her perspective and insight is so refreshing. A lot like Debora Blum (of Ghosthunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death fame), but dealing with day present issues. Every few minutes she says something that I want to write down and quote, but I won't do that here, because it wouldn't do her justice. It's a matter of context and tone.

Like I've pointed out in the past, researchers and experiencers should leave the writing and publishing up to journalists. It's what they do.

Suffice it to say I strongly suggest people listen to her interview. It's an episode on a CBC Radio One show called Tapestry.

After the obligatory mindless 60 second intro, the show takes off and gets your attention. Put it like this, at least listen to the first ten minutes, and if it doesn't completely draw you in, then click it off. In my opinion, it's that good. And it gets deeper and better as it goes along.

Check it out.

Tip: After the 50 minute mark, just when you think the show is over, they tuck in one last anecdote called in by a listener. It's pretty cool.