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The Paranormal in the New Testament

All the God-talk at Easter has got me thinking about Biblical miracles. In the Guardian's Face to faith column yesterday, Michael Horan makes the case for the resurrection story being just that, a story, and not something to believe in literally. I say he makes the case, but it's more a sort of ruminating about something he takes for granted. In fact he is bemused that many people still believe that the resurrection and ascension were literally physical, historical events.

Here's how he explains it:

At this distance in time, and with only the New Testament as a source, we cannot know what actually happened after Jesus' crucifixion. Disillusion, confused and frightened, the disciples seem to have returned north to Galilee to resume their fishing. As they reminisced, possibly over many months, recalling their extraordinary experiences with Jesus, links began to form between their mental images of him and then-current messianic expectations. Possibly a part of that imagining was the idea, wholly feasible in their minds, that God had raised Jesus into his presence.

Probably when I was a very young child I took the Biblical miracles literally. But I don't think I was more than ten or eleven when I started to realise they might not be factual.  The pictures of Jesus travelling vertically upwards, like a slow-mo human rocket, seemed silly, and ever since then I was content to take all that as metaphor, without really worrying my head about it. 

But since I got interested in parapsychology I've had to rather modify that view. True, it's not hard to think of claims such as turning water into wine and walking on water as post-hoc imaginings - I'm not familiar with any credible claims of that kind in séance literature, for instance. But the Resurrection is a bit different. Whatever you think about claims of materialising mediums, it can't be denied that a great many people over the past one hundred and fifty years have believed themselves to be briefly reunited with a dead family member, apparently in fully flesh and blood form, that they could touch and embrace. As I mentioned when discussing Helen Duncan (Feb 29) the claims are sometimes very detailed and categorical, and curiously hard to account for. A lot of people have also been convinced by apparitions, although these seem less physical and so perhaps only indirectly relevant.

Without going so far as to make a detailed case for the Resurrection as a common-or-garden parapsychological event, I wonder whether this, and perhaps some of the other Biblical miracles, are actually the imaginative myth-making that is widely assumed - by many Christians as well as atheists. What interests me is the way the modern mind refashions something it can't accept - a 'category mistake', as Horan says. This speculative reframing - 'as they reminisced, possibly over many months...' - is typical of how sceptics explain away apparitional experiences, for instance, as a combination of faulty memory and imagination, which on close examination doesn't really work (I'll come back to that another time). 

Of course the first Christians lived so long ago we can speculate all we like - they aren't here to contradict us. The fact that they belonged to a pre-scientific age means we can consider them prey to all kinds of imaginings. But it's not quite as easy when people living today, or at least quite recently, make claims every bit as extraordinary as anything in the Bible.

This makes me stop and think. I've always understood that it was precisely those miraculous occurrences that launched Christianity in the first place - that people took Jesus's teachings seriously because his doings made him seem literally superhuman, validating his claim to be an emissary of God. It's startling to think that two thousand years later, paranormal claims that the world tends to regard as unexplained 'miracles' again challenge us to rethink our beliefs about our situation.

Intentional Chocolate

Sceptics rightly complain that the miraculous benefits touted by so many suppliers of health foods have little or no scientific backing. Well I recently came across something that will really annoy them. An American chocolate manufacturer claims that chocolate imprinted with good thoughts can actually make you feel better. And it has the double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study to prove it.

Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate bases its claim on the traditional idea that food tastes finer and is more health-giving if it has been made with love and good intentions, or ceremonially blessed. (I don't remember hearing this, and it didn't sound likely, but what do I know.) The firm's founder Jim Walsh says dishes prepared by great chefs seem to work better than identical recipes created by less gifted folk. He believes there is such a thing as the 'Mother's chicken soup syndrome' - lovingly prepared foods by one who cares has curative properties.

The company says it was the first to grow cacao beans in the US, and spent years spreading the word about the 'true properties of chocolate, its amazing health qualities, the transcendent attributes of tastes, texture and most importantly its soul.' Then it gets a bit strange. An American scientist emerged from the Amazonian jungle one day carrying a message for Walsh from the cacao shamans of the upper Amazon. The shamans had communed with their devas, who said to tell Walsh:

The cacao tree is here on earth to heal the etheric heart of man and this mission is as important as plankton fixing oxygen from the sea. Continue your work; it is critical to cacao fulfilling its purpose.

Unsurprisingly, Walsh didn't really get this. But a bit later one of the company's main investors, who had suffered a serious heart attack, found that nibbling a cacao bean from the company's plantation brought a miraculous recovery from chest pain. This got Walsh's attention, and by degrees he arrived at the idea of a curative energy field that surrounds chocolate. He mentioned it to parapsychologist Dean Radin, who realised the claim could be tested.

The subsequent study by Radin, Hayssen and Walsh was published last October in Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing. Their approach was to create four groups of people, with care taken to ensure a broadly similar demographic profile. Three of the groups were given chocolate that had been blessed by Tibetan monks and a Mongolian shaman, each using a different technique. The fourth group was given ordinary chocolate as a control. By the end of the week all three groups eating the treated chocolate reported improved mood, with less fatigue and greater vigour, while the control group reported little change. The overall significance was not great, at the p = .04 level, but jumped to p = .0001 for those who habitually ate little chocolate, well beyond chance levels even given the small size of the sample.

Before this experiment I might have dismissed the whole idea as a bit airy-fairy. But a result as robust as this has made me think again.

That Mad Feeling

Chris Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics came in the post today, and I'm looking forward to reading it. I'll review it in a while, but today I just want to mention something that struck me while I was dipping into Rupert Sheldrake's introduction. It's that extraordinary episode that occurred eighteen months ago, when Sheldrake and others were invited to present papers at a science festival and were furiously denounced in the press by leading scientists like Peter Atkins, who said there was no reason to suppose telepathy was anything more than a "charlatan's fantasy".

It's the sheer heat of sceptics' responses that gets my attention. I've often wondered about it, and just recently I got a sense of why people react so fiercely to what they can't explain. It was while spending Easter with my father, now pushing 92. While I was there my sister called, asking me to look for a business letter that she had left there on her last visit. I put off looking for it as long as possible, and then took the plunge.

The problem is, my Dad doesn't do filing. Never has. Thirty or so piles of paper are distributed around the house, on the kitchen and dining room tables, around his armchair in the living room, in his bedroom, on the table in the hall, on chairs, on the floor, behind desks... So if you want to find a piece of paper all you know is: it's in one of those piles.

The first pile I tried contained, more or less in this order, two recent bank statements, a letter concerning a hospital appointment next month, a speech given by Stanley Baldwin in the 1930s, a very old bar of Swiss chocolate, a restaurant menu, an invitation to a wedding in 1973, a letter warning that the car insurance is about to expire, a Christmas card from people who died ten years ago, two sheets of blank paper, junk mail for kitchens, a clipping from a 1960s fashion magazine, a maintenance manual for an old food processor, and last month's phone bill.

Note the distribution of recent and possibly relevant material - bank statements, bills, hospital appointments, etc - evenly spread through the detritus of the past. Even more fascinating: every single pile of paper is exactly similar. There is the same anarchic spread of current business mail with personal correspondence, clippings, photos, etc. If you want to gather all the phone bills or bank statements together - as we sometimes do - you will have to hunt through all the piles to collect them.

Now, you may say, that happens with elderly people - get over it. But it's not that at all. Not only is Dad quite normal in every other respect, he is mobile, mentally sharp, and has an active social life. It's not because he's lazy or forgetful, he likes it this way. My sister and I once spent an afternoon filing the statements and bills, and on our next visit he had turned everything back to the way it was before.   

Of course it's my problem, not his. But it really is a struggle. It provokes me - there's something creatively mad about it. When I was searching for this letter I found myself simultaneously clutching my head and groaning. I'm sure a psychologist could come up with some neat explanation of why he does it, but I'm not convinced it would really satisfy me.

That night I lay awake anxiously trying to fathom it, and completely failing.  Then I recalled Kant's odd image of one man milking a billy goat and the other holding a sieve underneath to catch the milk - it comes in the Critique of Pure Reason to illustrate the idea of complete nonsense.

I also remembered where I first came across it, mentioned in With the Eyes of the Mind, a book about out-of-body experiences by two psychiatrists, Gabbard and Twemlow. It's their response to reports of accident victims and hospital patients having consciousness of events around their bodies when by every normal indicator they are unconscious. Up until this point the authors had done a competent job of researching the OBE, but this aspect of it completely stumped them. They then struggled rather inefectually to explain it away, for instance by accusing hospital doctors of being bamboozled by deviant patients or of doctoring their own data.

I realised then that I entered that strange state of mind that militant sceptics occupy when they contemplate paranormal claims. They are reacting to something which is impossible, inexplicable, and makes no sense. It really is a deeply uncomfortable feeling. So when they reject ESP or out-of-body awareness it's not just an ideological act, a commitment to scientific orthodoxy, but a cry of anguish. Of course I know this perfectly well on an intellectual level, but it was salutory to be reminded of just what it feels like.

Psychics and the Police

Whenever a child goes missing you can be sure that someone will claim to have psychic information about his or whereabouts. So no surprise that this happened in the case of Shannon Matthews.

There isn't much information, but from the various press reports I've read the scenario was something like this. Shannon, aged nine, disappeared on February 19. On March 6 the Daily Mirror reported that a clairvoyant had told her mother she was still alive and that she had been taken 'by somebody who you know'. On the following Sunday March 9 the Mirror's sister paper The People identified the psychic as Joe Power, and said Shannon had been abducted by car, about which he gave some details. 

Shannon was found alive on March 14. She had been taken by the uncle of Shannon's stepfather Craig, a man named Michael Donovan, but also known as Paul Drake, his original name. She was found hidden under a divan bed in his flat in Batley, a mile from her home.

Two days later on the 16th the People revealed that Power had provided three extra items of information, that the abductor was possibly named Michael or Paul, that Shannon had sat on his knee at a family funeral, and that she was currently in Batley. The People confirmed that these details had been provided before Shannon's discovery and passed to the police.

That may be so, but it seems that the information was never acted on. Shannon was found after a woman reported hearing a child's footsteps in the apartment above her, where, to her knowledge, no child was living.

Still, Power is confident that he had the right information in time, and is miffed that the police did not use it. He says:

The main thing is that in Britain it's about time the police recognised real, gifted psychics who can save the police millions of pounds. It should be in the law. They do it in America.

Well perhaps. But there are issues here. It's true that Power came up with some accurate facts before the case was resolved, essential if the claim of psychic knowledge is to carry credibility. But they were not terribly detailed: 'alive not dead', and 'someone you know', each have a 50% chance of being true. It's highly probable that the abductor used a car, so no surprise there either. If you consider that Power was probably only one of several psychics who volunteered information, which police say usually happens in such cases, there is even less reason to get excited - you'd expect that only the one who gets anything right is going to be talking to the press, while the rest are keeping quiet.

It was only after the event that we hear, as Power says, that he had identified the name Paul, someone connected with Craig and the area she was in: "I heard a voice saying she'd been taken to Batley, through one of my guides, crystal clear." But if so, why were these details not published in the original report? Now we only have his word for it, and the word of the reporters. 

Psychics often claim that they help police with their investigations, and imply that they make a useful contribution. Power himself is keen to promote that: his website states that he is 'renowned for his accuracy and his work with the police'. But where is the police testimony for that? The impression one gets from the police themselves is quite different. A couple of years ago 27 UK police forces (out of a total of around 40) responded to a survey about the use of psychics carried out by a sceptics group. The responses were pretty dismissive. For instance Kent police said:

It would be almost inconceivable to have paid a person purporting to have psychic powers for their assistance. In my personal experience as a police officer with 30 years service, in the aftermath of a major crime many people offer information, as witnesses, psychics or experts. All information is evaluated and considered. Personally, I have never found a person claiming to have psychic abilities to have been of benefit to an investigation.

Of course no public organisation would risk associating itself with the paranormal, and it's quite likely that some individual coppers may think some psychic leads worth following up, particularly where an investigation has ground to a halt. It may be, as Power says, that this happens more in the US than Britain. I recall an American TV documentary a few years back in which detectives were full of praise for psychics who had led them to the bodies of missing individuals. There's also a comment on Amazon in the review section of Joe Nickell's Psychic Sleuths complaining that Nickell didn't do his homework when debunking a case in which a psychic named Phil Jordan was involved.

I know because I am the child's mother, and I was never contacted. And I also know for certain that scores of volunteer firemen and policemen were searching for my son unsuccessfully, in the wrong area for hours. The next morning, Phil Jordan arrived, asked me for a personal article of Tommy's, and with Tommy's little sneaker, as well as hand drawn map of the area (an area which Phil Jordan had never seen before), Phil walked directly to my son... Would Tom be alive today if it were not for Phil Jordan's God given ability? Probably not... Because of Phil Jordan, I held my son in my arms again. There is no way that I can ever thank Phil Jordan enough.

But this happy outcome seem to be exceptional. More common are cases where psychics insist they are helping police, but aren't getting results. For instance there's the Florida case of Trenton Duckett, a two year old who disappeared 18 months ago. A psychic named Maggie Giono says she has been talking to Trenton's spirit and that he is trying to lead her to him, also a missing woman named Jennifer Kesse. But police have followed up in both cases quite thoroughly and found nothing. 

So it's hardly fair to blame the police for being cautious about working with psychics. Self-promotional bragging only puts them off and adds to public cynicism about psychism.  It doesn't mean that psychics have nothing to offer; on the contrary, the remarkable results gained by remote viewers associated with the Star Gate program suggest that it's a skill that could be exploited. But as things stand there is no real incentive for the police to pay much attention. What's needed is some breakthrough to give the process credibility and make police open to the possibility that they might get results this way.

It might be an individual success, as the Shannon case could have been if Power had posted all of his data before it was resolved. But in the longer term it might require a more concerted, collective approach. An office might be set up that collates psychics' claims about ongoing investigations and looks to see whether any positive matches occur with actual facts. If, over a period of time, certain individuals start to create a track record, showing genuine insight, the police would be far more likely to make use of them.

Arthur C. Clarke

Sorry to hear about the passing of Arthur C. Clarke, although 90 is a good age. His were just about the first science fiction stories I read as a teenager, which is something you don't forget, and some of his futuristic speculations actually made sense.

What I always liked about Clarke was his attitude towards scientific dogmatism, viz:

New ideas pass through three periods:
1) It can't be done.
2) It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing.
3) I knew it was a good idea all along!


If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

(Not sure about 'elderly' there... )

Clarke was sceptical about UFOs, insisting that pretty much every unexplained sighting could be accounted for eventually. But he had quite a different take on poltergeists, arguing that there is 'impressive evidence that small objects an be thrown around, or even materialised, with no apparent physical cause.'

Usually there is a disturbed adolescent in the background, and although adolescents are quite capable of raising hell by non paranormal means, this persistent pattern over so many cultures and such a long period of time suggests that something strange is going on. If so it is a complete mystery, and labels such as 'psychokinesis' are only fig leaves to conceal our ignorance.

That rubbed militant sceptics up the wrong way - always a good thing. 'I should not be surprised if the average person does not understand scientific method, but I really expected something better from Arthur C Clarke,' grouches Victor Stengler (Physics and Psychics, p. 71), who quotes him saying that 'many poltergeist cases cannot be easily explained away'. Of course Stengler goes to do just that, wheeling out James Randi's debunking of Tina Resch and referring vaguely to 'many other cases' of trickery being suspected or exposed. I think Clarke realised that cases like Miami and Rosenheim, which of course Stengler doesn't mention, raise questions that the debunkers' speculations barely touch.

In short, someone one could relate to. It's comforting to remember, at moments when one starts to doubt it, that there are figures who scientists and atheists respect as one of them, who are passionate and knowledgeable about science, and whose critical faculties are not in doubt, yet who are open to the most inexplicable and ridiculous of human experiences being true. Perhaps that's what makes a great science fiction writer.

The Andover Poltergeist

Here's a familiar story. Two young girls are in bed one night when they hear a curious tapping noise coming from somewhere in the room. This happens on several consecutive nights. It seems to emanate from the wall, and they think at first it must be coming from the house next door. But then, weirdly, they realize that the noise is responding to them, even when they are whispering so quietly that no one outside the room could possibly hear. They find they can communicate with it, by asking questions and getting it to knock once for yes, two for no, and three for don't know. For more complex queries it will rap out the letter of the alphabet (five knocks for E, 13 for M, etc). The whole family soon gets involved, and gather nightly to ask the unseen entity about itself and get it to answer questions about themselves, which it often does correctly.  The house is soon filled with neighbours, local clergy, police, mediums and investigators, all coming to wonder at the phenomenon and try to figure out what's causing it.

The strange story of the Fox sisters is usually the first thing that you read about in any general book about spiritualism and the paranormal. You may go on to hear that that having established they could communicate through raps the spirits later came through  at séances, launching the cult of spiritualism that quickly swept the developed world. If it's a debunking book the mystery will then be revealed: towards the end of their lives the girls admitted it was a prank played on their parents, first by bumping apples tied to string on the floor, and then by manipulating their toes and joints to create the rapping noises. This segues naturally into reflections about the gullibility of the superstitious masses, and their reprehensible failure to accept it was all a trick.

Either way, the impression most of these books leave you with is that the Fox incident was a one-off. But of course this tale of raps and codes and spooky communications is widely reported. It's not exactly common, but it's so distinctive, and often reported in such detail, as to create the appearance of a phenomenon in its own right. When Tony Cornell and Alan Gauld tabulated 500 documented poltergeist-type cases back in the late 1970s they found that around half involved exactly this kind of rapping noises, often described as knocks, thumps, thuds, bangings and suchlike, for which no cause can be found. They say 16% involve communication, of which presumably the majority involve this method. [Poltergeists, pp. 224-40]

The case I mentioned earlier is actually not the Fox sisters, but concerns the Andrews family in Andover, Hampshire, in 1974. It was investigated by Barrie G. Colvin, who says he was prevented by the family from publishing more than an outline at the time. Ten years later they were still unwilling to have it publicised but now that more than 30 years have elapsed, and the family has moved from the area, there is no longer an issue about this, and he has written it up in the latest SPR Journal, using pseudonyms.

Colvin seems to have been quite through, paying a total of nine visits over a ten-week period. As well as interviewing the family about the origins of the case he had plenty of opportunity to hear the raps himself and establish that they were not the result of trickery or other visible cause.  The focus seems to have been Theresa, the younger of the two girls aged 12. Colvin also established to his own satisfaction that the source had intelligence of a sort, calling itself Eric Waters, although it does not seem to have provided any coherent information beyond that. At one point a medium claimed the noises were being made by a young boy whose body was buried under the floorboards; nothing more is mentioned about this, and subsequent investigations failed to turn up anyone of that name who had lived in the area. 

Colvin did attempt a small experiment, persuading 'Eric' to transfer the noises from the wall of the room to the headboard of Theresa's bed. As follows:

[Mrs Andrews] then said: "Eric, please try to knock on the headboard." This was followed by a very soft tap which was heard by us all. I was at that moment standing very close indeed to the headboard, with my ear about 15 cm from it. As Mrs Andrews repeated the request, I put my hand on the headboard to see whether I could feel any sensation. Eric rapped progressively louder on the headboard and I could clearly feel the vibration.

It's interesting how often vibrations in the bed headboard feature in poltergeist literature. This is just one example, from the 1960 case in Sauchi in Scotland:

On entering at the front door he heard loud knockings in progress. Going upstairs he found Virginia awake, but not greatly excited, in the double bed... The loud knocking noise continued and appeared to emanate from the bed-head. Mr. Lund moved Virginia down in to the bed so that she could not strike or push the bed-head with her head, and he also verified that her feet were well tucked in under the bed-clothes, and held in by them. The knocking continued. During the knocking Mr. Lund held the bed-head. He felt it vibrating in unison with the noises. [A.R.G. Owen (1964) Can We Explain The Poltergeist?, pp. 148-9.]

The responsiveness is less common, but is still widely reported. Perhaps the best known case of the kind is reported by William Barrett, investigating a case in a farmhouse in Derrygonnelly in 1877:

To avoid any error or delusion on my part, I put my hands in the side pockets of my overcoat and asked it to knock the number of fingers I had open. It correctly did so. Then with a different number of fingers open each time, the experiment was repeated four times in succession, and four times I obtained absolutely the correct number of raps ['Poltergeists Old and New', SPR Proceedings 25, 1911, pp. 377-412]

The Andrews family seem to have been rather ambivalent about the case, enjoying the novelty of communicating with an unseen entity, but becoming frightened when the taps and raps turned into loud bangings, especially when they went on for hours and deprived them of sleep. By Colvin's last visit it seemed to have faded out, however. While the family treated Eric has a deceased spirit, Colvin's view is that no discarnate entity was involved, and that the case fits the pattern of repressed emotion in the living, although there was no outward sign of this, the family being apparently happy and stable. 

Of course none of this would convince a sceptic: it's hard to share an investigator's conviction of the paranormality of an event without copious reassurances, diagrams, descriptions, signed statements by witnesses with impeccable rationalist credentials, and so on, and probably not even then. But my understanding is that sceptics actually never get that close to the phenomenon, in real life or even in books.  If you look at the debunking literature you will quickly find that there are two main sources: James Randi's article on the Columbus, Ohio case of 1984 and a clutch of cases mentioned by another debunking magician Milbourne Christopher in his book Seers, Psychics and ESP (1970). Neither of the magicians witnessed anything (the families concerned would not let them into the house) and in any case they do not really involve this rapping phenomenon.

I'd be interested to know if debunkers like Joe Nickell who rely on these two sources to such an extent have any sensible ideas about this, beyond insisting that the teenagers are playing tricks, and that everyone else is too dim-witted to notice. Considering how insistent they are that the Fox sisters case was a hoax, and the mileage they get from it, it's a contribution they should be encouraged to make.

The Psi-Seeding of Academe

Parapsychology in the UK is in excellent health. So says Deborah Delanoy, president of the Society for Psychical Research, in the new edition of its Paranormal Review.

Is it really true? My perception has been that parapsychology as a discipline is somewhat moribund, both in Britain and the US. There's still experimental stuff going on, but there is little of the excitement generated by the ganzfeld debates of the 1980s, for instance, when there was a sense in some quarters that parapsychology might be on the brink of acceptance by the scientific community. Not much is heard from Edinburgh's Koestler Institute, especially since the death of its head Bob Morris four years ago. Rupert Sheldrake is very active and has been getting interesting results, as well as a fair amount of media coverage, for instance with his experiments on psi in animals and the sense of being stared at. But one doesn't get the sense of parapsychology as a discipline striding ahead.

However Delanoy is looking at the long-term. She points out that thanks to the Koestler Institute, parapsychology is being taught at more UK universities than ever before, both to undergraduates and graduates doing research.  Morris supervised more than 30 PhD students, many of whom are training their own students at other universities, who in turn are becoming academics and training other PhD students. There are now 45 PhDs, Delanoy says, and no fewer than eleven UK universities where one can either take classes or pursue a research degree in parapsychology - they include Northampton, Liverpool Hope, Goldsmiths (London) and Coventry. This is having a snowball effect, she says. As more people get involved in psi research it will start to seem normal, and teachers and students in other disciplines will not be fazed by it. 

Delanoy compares the situation favourably with the US, which led the way from the 1930s but has since become increasingly focused upon privately funded research, which is less secure than universities. (I don't know how much documented linkage there is, but it's hard to think that CSICOP has not had a lot to do with that.) Delanoy's point is that a solid university base is a much more effective means of furthering the subject, a means to train the next generation of researchers and make them financially secure. That in turn enables longer-term projects to be carried out, and influences the general public's perception of the field.

I completely agree that all this is a major step forward. But I have some concerns.

A lot depends on parapsychology maintaining strict professionalism and not setting itself up as a target. That means pursuing sceptic-proof methodologies and avoiding the kind of scandals that can undo much good work.  It's worth remembering Ray Hyman's advice to fellow-sceptics in the context of the Stargate remote viewing. The results may be impressive, and he can't see anything wrong with them yet. But wait awhile and they will be discredited for one reason or another, as has always happened in the past.  It would only take one researcher, however lowly, to be exposed massaging his or her results, or as having been tricked by subjects planted by a magician, perhaps as a scam financed by a newspaper, for this brave new wave of parapsychologists to be discredited for the next ten years. And it's safe to assume there will be plenty of efforts in that direction.

In fact I think the Koestler people understood all this very well. I'm not aware of them suffering any serious controversy: an attempt to do a 'Project Alpha' was nipped in the bud before it could do any harm, which was reassuring. But if the Koestler activity is multiplied across the country by a factor of ten or more, then so is the chance of a mishap or of standards slipping. I'd be curious to know whether these new parapsychology units have any system in place to review each other's experimental activity and generally keep an eye on each other, to minimise the chance of negative publicity and scandal.

The real test will come when research teams have something worthwhile to report. We may not have long to wait, to judge by talk of significant remote viewing results in the University of Northampton (see my Jan 28 post). By definition, success in this field automatically leads to media interest. That is followed by barracking from high-profile scientists and sceptics, as sure as night follows day. The greater the success, the bigger the threat is perceived to be, and the more vicious the campaigning to stop it will become. It has taken more than two decades for the psi-seeding of academe in the UK to take place, but a sceptical campaign to discourage universities from 'harbouring pseudo-science' could quickly reverse that. Scientists see creationism as the main threat right now, but that's only because the movement to teach intelligent design in schools has had a much higher profile. Parapsychology could soon be in the firing line.

If this sounds a bit gloomy it's because, as a long-time student of parapsychology, I know how easy it is for sceptics to manipulate public perceptions. My point is that something rather more is demanded of parapsychologists than in any other discipline one can think of. They don't just need to be passionate about their subject; to be taken seriously, and to face down the opposition, they need also to be diplomats, publicists and public relations experts, writers, controversialists, street-fighters even. Many scientists have at some time or other to fight for funding and get involved in politicking, but this is political activity on a quite different level.

I'm not at all saying that British parapsychologists can't succeed in getting their subject accepted and achieving that all-important breakthrough. But I think that the process that Delanoy quite rightly welcomes is just a first step.

No Short Cuts

Thinking a bit more about people who believe there is no evidence of psi or survival, and nothing to argue about. If someone said to me, 'OK, so I'm an ignorant disbeliever, educate me', what would I say? I suppose the first thing would be to direct him/her to some useful books. But which ones?

Kevin (comments, That Glass Screen, March 7), suggests Kelly et al's Irreducible Mind, an in-depth argument for a revised view of consciousness that embraces the empirical research.  It's a magnificent book and would certainly be on my list, although it might be a bit weighty for someone with limited time to spare. Perhaps also, as he says, Jenny Wade's Changes of Mind and Chris Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics, which I hope to review shortly. Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds, Rupert Sheldrake's The Sense of Being Stared At and Stephen Braude's The Limits of Influence  would all be indispensable, to name only a few.

If we are talking about survival, I might recommend Richard Almeder's Death and Personal Survival. That sets out the logic in a rigorous way, and has the virtue of being quite succinct. David Lorimer's excellent Survival? might also be good, as it pulls together a lot of the historical background about afterlife belief together with theories of consciousness and paranormal evidence.

So there's plenty of good stuff out there. Perhaps reading one or more of these books might at least encourage people to hesitate before making sweeping declarations about the lack of evidence.   

But I'm not convinced that on their own they would do much more than this. When I recall my own journey there wasn't any one book that did it for me. I read voraciously and indiscriminately, and it just got me into the most fantastic muddle.  I remember getting Brian Inglis's Natural and Supernatural from the library and, since it was sitting right next to it, Ruth Brandon's The Spiritualists, one a factual chronicle of nineteenth century psychical research, and the other a determined and highly speculative debunking. They wrote about the same mediums, investigations and controversies, but from entirely opposite viewpoints, which left me wondering what the hell was going on.

Eventually I realised that I would have to figure things out for myself by getting to grips with the primary sources. That's when it started to get interesting. Having just lost my job, and with no immediate prospect of getting another, I had the luxury of loads of time, and spent weeks and months in libraries. I ploughed through the anecdotal material and analysis of spontaneous phenomena in the various journals, also books like Phantasms of the Living and Myers' Human Personality, the work with Piper and Leonard, the cross correspondences, 'Patience Worth', investigations of poltergeists, the experimental work from Richet to Rhine, Jahn and Dunne, Honorton and others.  Then I read much of the literature on near-death experiences Ring, Sabom, Morse, Greyson, etc) and the equally extraordinary work on possession and children's memories of a previous life by Ian Stevenson and others.

I also thought a lot about the claims and tested the logic. Here I found the sceptics hugely useful: Kurtz's Transcendental Temptation and Skeptic's Handbook, Randi's Flim-Flam!, Hyman's The Elusive Quarry and many others. At first what they said seemed to make a lot of sense - it took quite a while to realise how limited their knowledge and understanding is. I think that's when light started to dawn.

My point is that you don't arrive at conviction on something as significant as this by reading one or two books. Perhaps some people do, but then I wonder how firm and lasting it is. Better to immerse yourself in the claims and experiences, weigh them up against your own experience, read the analyses of both investigators and sceptics, and see who you think is doing the best job. It's then that the gradual conviction comes over you that there's a huge area of human experience that has just been filtered out of your awareness, not through any fault of your own, just as an effect of being alive in the world at this particular time.

I suspect too that on some level it would have to jibe with personal experience, and surely even sceptics have at least once been confronted with an incident that forced them to ask questions, in their own lives or the lives of someone close to them.

So no short cuts. This isn't just information in libraries, it changes lives. It can't be a purely intellectual process. You'd have to bring a certain commitment to the subject, otherwise it would just be dabbling. You would actually have to respond, and who knows where that might lead. You might find yourself starting to sympathise with people you once despised, and find yourself despised in turn by people whose good opinion you once took for granted. Your friends would change. And I don't think there's a book that prepares you for that.

Keen Communicator

To North London on Saturday for a pleasant pub lunch with Veronica Keen, widow of the late Montague Keen. I met Monty a few times when we were involved in a SPR project together some years back, although didn't know him well. He was the senior of the three authors of the SPR's Scole Report (Proceedings 58, 1999) and an effective debunker of sceptics. I especially appreciated his robust response to James Randi's comments on a Channel 4 TV show five years ago - incidentally Veronica is pictured, to rebut Randi's rudeness about her looks.

Many people remember Monty's dramatic passing, at the end of a public debate about telepathy between Rupert Sheldrake and evolutionary scientist Lewis Wolpert. Since then, Veronica says, he has continued to be a very active presence in her life, writing through her hand and communicating at séances. I heard the tape of an address he made to be played back later at his memorial service. The voice sounded very clear and forthright, and I assumed it was the medium speaking in trance, but she said, no, it was direct voice: the medium's mouth had been securely taped as well has having his arms bound to the chair. From what I remember of Monty it sounded like him, and Veronica has no doubt - the slightly pedantic circumlocution of his speech was absolutely typical of him, she says.

She adds that he has also materialised, although she has not seen it herself. At one séance he 'shadowed' her body, superimposing an image of himself over her, and conversed with the sitters; she was in trance and was not aware of it.

Veronica is not at all fazed by any of this, and takes it for granted that he should keep in touch. But there is more: he is apparently very keen for her to start a new foundation to carry out spiritual, medical and environmental research.  He is very determined about this, according to Veronica, and to help make it happen has joined forces with John Mack, the Harvard expert on alien abduction. (Mack was a friend of the couple, and had come to work with Veronica on communications from Monty some months later when he himself died, killed in a traffic accident near her house.)  She says he is pouring out information, and although she finds it exhilarating it is clearly taking over her life.

I have never been to a séance, and almost all of what I know about the paranormal is from reading books and journals. I'm not a researcher, and seldom have close contact with it. So although I can readily empathise with Veronica, I find what she tells me curiously hard to accommodate. It might all be happening on another planet. How much harder it must be to accept for people who know nothing about the subject at all. I suspect many will prefer to think that it's all in the mind of a grieving widow. Physical mediumship is by its nature extremely controversial.

Then again, the apparent ease with which Monty seems able to communicate would be consistent with two things. One is his close involvement with mediumship and commitment to the truth of post-mortem survival during his life. If appearances are to be believed, Frederic Myers and other leading lights of the early SPR laboured for years to provide evidence through the cross-correspondences.

Apparently it also helps if there is a strong emotional bond between the deceased and the surviving spouse. There's a good example of this in a memoir by David Kennedy, a Scottish priest who describes frequent contacts by his wife following her early death from heart-disease - he recounts incidents where at her urging mediums would ring him up out of the blue, for instance to wake him up when he had dozed off before a church service he was supposed to give.  The couple had become convinced about survival by reading parapsychology journals, and there was also a strong romantic attachment between them. Both conditions are present here: besides being a knowledgeable and passionate advocate of survival, Monty had a powerful bond with Veronica, in what was still quite a new relationship.

Veronica posts Monty's weekly letter on her website. She says that in the future he is keen to materialise in a way that provides scientific validation. This will require a good deal of luck and skill, if it is not simply to end in yet more fruitless controversy. Just as challenging will be getting the foundation going, and sticking to its highly ambitious agenda, although she is confident, having made progress and getting good professional help.  I wish her the best of luck.

That Glass Screen

Earlier this week (What's Weird, March 3), I wrote about the extraordinary anomaly - as it seems to me - of living in a world where indications of psychism as a feature of consciousness are abundant, yet utterly invisible to a large section of society. As I said, it's like a parallel universe where I'm separated from other people, many of whom I value and respect as friends or as writers and thinkers, by a conceptual glass screen.

This is something that has preoccupied me a good deal over the past few years. Those of us who are literate in parapsychological matters, who are familiar with the work and thought of people like William James, Frederic Myers, Edmund Gurney, JB Rhine, Ian Stevenson and many many others, can find it hard to understand why our peers - friends, family, co-workers - often don't see our interest in the same way. The evidence that these researchers gathered, the analyses they made and the conclusions that they arrived at seem to us to be deserving, if not of actual acceptance then at least of consideration. But this body of work is not only largely unknown in intellectual circles, it's something many people don't even want to hear about. More than once I have been gently harangued by well-meaning friends who upbraid me for even showing an interest in it, as if I was somehow letting myself down.

I've recently been reading a book by Julian Baggini, a British philosopher who writes about his subject in accessible books and articles. This 2004 volume is titled What's It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life. In chapter 3 (of 11) he disposes of life after death in just over four pages. He points out that consciousness appears to be dependent on the brain and that the idea of living on after death is difficult to make sense of, important arguments both. So far so reasonable. But he also says:

Belief in life after death can only be based on faith, since the evidence and good reasons required for a rational argument that it exists are lacking. The only evidence we have for life after death is the testimony of those who claim to have seen or communicated with the dead. This would certainly not stand up in a court of law and nor should it stand up in the court of reason. It is true, though not surprising, that a small number of these claims are hard to falsify. Among the many thousands of alleged communications with the other world there are bound to be a small number of uncanny coincidences and lucky guesses. However, if there were genuine communication between the living and the dead we would expect a great many more accurate and otherwise inexplicable communications. The fact that they are so rare suggests they are not genuine, but frauds, guesses, and coincidences.

Baggini is no foaming God-basher: au contraire, he's eminently reasonable and wears his atheism lightly.  I think - and I'm just guessing - that he talks like this here because it's the conventional wisdom in secular circles. He has no personal background of psychic experiences, his university philosophy department would almost by definition have been wholly secular, and he has never come across anything that would give him pause. In other words he's just very poorly informed. He has a vague idea about mediums, but gives no hint that he knows about the work with Piper and Leonard or the cross correspondences, let alone the vast data relating to crisis apparitions, near-death experiences and children's memories of a previous life, to name only a few of the 'reasons required for a rational argument'. If he wants to insist that these things are not sufficient reason for believing in post-mortem survival, then fine, he can apply his philosophical bag of tricks, as others have done. But an analysis this superficial will not do it.

There's a lot going on here, but I'd just like to mention the two things that are uppermost in my mind. One is that Baggini and many people like him, who might conceivably modify their views if they had an opportunity, have very little access to the data. True, they might find books by Braude, Ducasse, Broad, Almeder and others in the philosophy library, but they would still want to check the primary sources, and these are harder to get hold of. With the Internet that's starting to change, and hopefully more people will start to see what the evidence really consists of, if ways can be found to point them in the right direction.

At the same time, I think that for many people this is not really about the evidence, it's about what they feel comfortable with. This is stating the obvious, of course, but it's something we tend to forget when we upbraid sceptics for their complacency and intellectual cowardice, as we often do. The rest of Baggini's book offers a thoughtful series of ideas and arguments about how humans can find the meaning of life themselves, without having it thrust on them. For some people there is moral value in ignoring parapsychology, and it's something we should take into account when we try to draw their attention to it.