I've always thought that one reason for the confused and heated conversations we have about the existence or otherwise of psi phenomena is that some of us know the research and others don't. Sceptics can't see why the rest of us take it seriously, because they haven't read the sources that we're familiar with. Regular readers on Paranormalia have constantly complained about this - and with good reason.
This is one of the themes that runs through my book Randi's Prize, which with a bit of luck will be in the shops in September. The title is slightly misleading, in that the book is not specifically about James Randi, or the Million Dollar Challenge - I'm just using it as a handy symbol of sceptical thinking. What I'm really trying to do is introduce the subject of psi research to people who know nothing about it, and convince them that, at the very least, there's something there that merits their attention. That involves looking closely at the counter-arguments of people like Randi, Hyman, Wiseman and Blackmore, who insist it doesn't.
My own conviction came through reading the primary sources. Years ago I was unemployed for quite a long spell, and spent much of it in the library of the Society for Psychical Research wading through the Journals and Proceedings, starting right back in 1882. Later the SPR commissioned me to write an abstracts catalogue of all 120 volumes, which gave me a very full understanding of just how much documented material there is in support of psi's existence.
I always thought that, at the very least, if the sceptics had read some of this stuff they would find it hard to talk about the subject in the casual way that they do. I don't mean it would change their minds, but it would mean their arguments would have to be more complex and convoluted. Of course that's a powerful motivation for them not to read it, as it makes their job harder.
These aren't the people I'm talking to, however. It's the people who hear them, and tend to take them seriously who I'm interested in reaching. In their different ways, the professional debunkers are very convincing - Randi forceful in his sarcasm (and admired by Dawkins, who has an enormous audience), Wiseman and Hyman persuasively reasonable. After all, disbelief is a natural default position in view of claims which seem incredible, both in absolute terms (dead humans materialising from ectoplasm) and in relative terms (the idea of surviving death in a scientific-secular society that views the brain as the sole origin of experience).
And it's not enough just to argue. Randi's Prize mainly consists of arguments, but I know from my own experience that conviction comes gradually, from deep immersion in the research, to the point at which disbelief is overwhelmed and some new kind of accommodation has to be made. The research is referred to in the book, but only in a quite topline way, using examples to make points. I did toy with the idea of putting longer extracts in appendices, but this turned out to be impractical - the notes and bibliography already take up almost a quarter of the space.
Thankfully there's an obvious solution, and it's great that I'm writing at a time when the Internet has fully come of age, and is easily accessible to most people. I'm working on a companion site to the book, and my plan is for visitors to be able to download some of the research that has made such an impression on me. While I'm doing that, I thought I'd make some of it available here.
Here's the first: the Feilding Report on Eusapia Palladino, the famous series of eleven sittings carried out by three researchers on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research in Naples in 1908. As far as I know this has never been freely available before, in contrast to out-of-copyright books such as the SPR's Phantasms of the Living, Richet's Thirty Years of Psychical Research and Oliver Lodge's Raymond, which can be downloaded in various places. It's a Word file, and the scanning unfortunately introduced a lot of typos, so I've had to go through it to clean it up. I had to do it quickly - it's 90,000 words, so book-length - andI won't have got them all. But it's 99.95% accurate, which should do for general reading.
I'm tempted to pull some extracts out and discuss them, but there's no substitute just for browsing it.
What I will say is this: the report provides a detailed picture of three men - articulate, alert, highly intelligent and experienced in the dodgy medium business - shut up in a locked hotel room for hours at a time, on eleven different occasions, with a short, stout, middle-aged woman in long skirts, whom they have firmly controlled, and at times even tied up, watching all kinds of weird stuff happening: hands and faces appearing, the sensation of touches and grips on their arms, musical instruments playing themselves, tables and stools levitating, objects gliding around, raps sounding from the furniture. The disbelievers' position, by and large, has always been that this is explicable if we accept that Palladino got a hand or foot free here and there. My view is you have to read the report to see just how untenable this is.
There's a handy biog of Eusapia Palladino here.