A reason I've been a bit quiet recently is I've been working on my talk for the SPR's Study Day in a couple of weeks. If anyone has time free on Saturday 25 why not come by (details below). The other speakers are author Guy Lyon Playfair and biologist Rupert Sheldrake. The second afternoon session will be given over to questions, so there'll be plenty of opportunity for everyone to join in. Oh, and Chris French will be there, so we won't be preaching entirely to the converted.
It should make for an interesting event. Guy is pretty militant about sceptics, and is doubtless relishing the prospect of dishing a bit of dirt about the activities of organisations like CISCOP. Rupert has been at the sharp end of their activities for years - I'm particularly looking forward to hearing his version of the psychic dog saga.
As for me, I plan to talk about the psychology of the sceptic. My point is that 'believers' are thought to have addled brains - incapable of logical reasoning, blinded by bias and wishful thinking, etc - but actually a lot of militant sceptics can give them a run for their money. There are some quite interesting mental processes going on in their heads as well.
One of sceptics' favourite ways of explaining away psychic experience is faulty memory. You can't believe paranormal anecdotes because memory is very unreliable, as all sorts of studies have proved. I've often wondered about this - it's one of those generalisations which sound superficially quite plausible, but what does it really mean? What is the process involved? How is a near-death vision or the sighting of an apparition caused by the vagaries of memory?
The principle seems to be that some people are naturally inclined to believe in wonders and miracles, or have an urgent need to find mystery and meaning in incidents that people with their feet firmly on the ground would recognise to have mundane causes. Suppose someone reports a strange dream or hallucination of a relative that occurred at the precise time this person was dying in hospital. It's not that these two separate events necessarily did coincide; they might have actually been hours or even days apart. But under 'the insidious pressure of their superstitious longings' the two things become conflated in their imaginations, as if they happened simultaneously.
This has long been the main criticism made of the SPR's early research into 'crisis apparitions', those that coincide with a death or serious trauma. For any single one of these hundreds of anecdotes to be taken seriously, it is said, a description of the apparition would have to be written down before news of the death was received. Since this very rarely happened, critics feel justified in rejecting the whole lot.
One of the big problems with this - entirely unacknowledged, as far as I know - is that Edmund Gurney, Fred Myers and the others took a lot of trouble to get corroboration from other people. It's true, Miss Burns had come down to breakfast that day ashen-faced and shaking, yes, she had described a shockingly vivid dream of her fiancé in Australia falling out of a window, and a telegram bearing news that he had suffered just such a fatal accident had arrived a day later. In many of the cases such corroboration would be provided by two or more people. If the sceptics are to be believed, all these people's memories have corrupted, and to produce exactly the same paranormal-seeming effect.
A more interesting difficulty is that there's no real evidence of it. The exception - and the major exhibit in the critics' case - is the story about Judge Hornby, which was published by Gurney and Myers in a magazine article. Hornby was a senior judge based in Shanghai in the 1870s, at this time a British protectorate. He said he had been going to bed one night when he came face to face with a journalist asking him for details of a judgment he was to give the next day. This was a normal arrangement, except that on this occasion it was very late and the man had in some strange way got into his bedroom. After a brief and heated exchange the man vanished: the next day he was found to have died in his bed at the time of the incident.
That Judge Hornby had indeed had this apparitional vision was confirmed to the satisfaction of the investigators by his wife, who had been woken up by hearing him talking. It was later pointed out by a Shanghai resident who knew about the journalist's death, that Hornby's vision could not have occurred as he described it because he was not married at the time. Therefore he would have had no wife to discus it with. The judge conceded this was true, and that his memory must have played tricks on him, although he could not imagine how. Gurney and Meyers publicly withdrew the case and apologized for not having been more thorough. Red faces all round.
This is related in detail in all the debunking books and you can see why - it seems resoundingly to confirm the suspicions about the vagaries of memory. As such, it pretty much neutralises all the testimony that the SPR gathered.
I have to say, though, that after encountering the story for the third and fourth times, I started to get twinges of - dare I say - scepticism. It just seemed so unlikely that a judge, of all people, should have got his testimony so dramatically muddled up. He behaved just as someone would do who attached great importance to factual accuracy: the next day when he discovered what had happened he quizzed his own servants, talked to the man's family to find out the exact circumstances, and so on. The implication made by the critics is that the man had died one day in March, and then in June, or some time afterwards, Hornby had had a dream about it, and subsequently imagined the two things coincided.
You've probably figured this one out already. It took me a little while, probably because I was quite new to the subject and the sceptics are so authoritative about these things one sort of goes along with them.
Of course there's a much simpler explanation for the confusion. Hornby may indeed not have been married, but it doesn't mean that he wasn't sleeping with a woman, probably the woman he married three months later. Telling his story for the benefit of science, as he thought, he never thought that this detail would be so embarrassingly laid bare. In Victorian times ladies who cared about their reputations didn't sleep with men they weren't married to. So to avoid outing her as a whore he had to change his story.
There are in fact heavy hints about this in the SPR journals - there's an innocent explanation, but the researchers aren't at liberty to reveal it. You and I can quickly understand what really happened because we aren't prejudiced about paranormal reports. But debunkers can't because their brains point in only one direction, and they don't read psychical literature, so it's not the sort of thing they'd ever stumble across.
If you take the Hornby story out the equation, the sceptics have nothing to back up their claim that the vagaries of memory can produce experiences like those that so many people report. It's true that John Coover, in a 1928 paper reprinted in Paul Kurtz's A Skeptic's Handbook came up with a couple of other examples besides this one, but they don't really advance the case much either. One is to point out that William Crookes described the details of certain experiments with Douglas Home differently in two different places. But that merely shows that he misremembered them, it doesn't show a normal incident morphing into a paranormal one.
Coover's other example is in some ways the most interesting of the three: it describes the case of a sitter at a Home séance, who immediately afterwards wrote in his diary of all the extraordinary things he had seen, for which he had no explanation whatever, and two months later was going around telling people he had seen Home doing tricks with strings and levers. The discrepancy was only discovered after his death. What this shows is a paranormal incident morphing into a normal one under the vagaries of memory. And it's the point that I'll be making in my talk. It's a common and involuntary psychological response to an uncomfortable anomalous experience, for the memory to quietly erase it with the passage of time, and I'll give a few examples.
The point here is that abundant evidence in parapsychological literature of this very natural and predictable process - séance researchers often remarked on it. Again, it's something that debunkers will never know about, because they don't read this material. And one has to ask, why does the debunker, to back up his idea of fallible memory generating supposedly paranormal incidents, use an example which demonstrates entirely the opposite process. Can he really not see the difference? My conclusion is that the mental processes that sceptics identify as causing paranormal belief are actually just as likely to generate scepticism - and this is just one example.
Anyway, more on this at the Study Day. If you're based in London and can come, it's at St Philip's Church, Earls Court Road, W8. Saturday 25 October, 10am - 5pm, £35. More details from the SPR, 020 7937 8984.