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Survival Riddles

A reader writes to say he enjoyed Randi's Prize, but that it left him with some puzzling questions about the idea of survival, which I didn't at all address.

If human consciousness survives death, then one might conclude that the world is illusory, and we are part of some great all encompassing consciousness - the material world being created by or for us to live in and experience things. But in that case, what is the rest of the universe all about? What's all this time and space for?

It's like creating the Amazon to house a flea. Why does there need to be trillions of galaxies, divided by an infinity of nothingness, just to surround these infinitesimal bodies that universal consciousness has chosen to live and breathe through?

Another view of survival might hold the materialist view, that we are biological organisms that have spontaneously evolved to the level of conscious awareness. In that case,

our survival of death must be tied up with the temporary fate of this little planet and this fleeting species. So would not a surviving consciousness or an afterlife be limited to the length of time the species or the planet exists? And if so what happens when the former dies out and the later burns up? Does the afterlife vanish too?

Then there's a question about how animals fit in. If dogs and parrots are capable of telepathic interactions with humans, as research by Rupert Sheldrake seems to suggest, does that mean they have separate afterlives? Is their destiny in the world the same as ours, to learn how to love and get along?

I know that for some people riddles like these are stumbling blocks. Particularly the one about space. If all of creation is just for our benefit why does there need to be so much of it? There are a whole bunch of others, particularly with regard to reincarnation.

The reason why they don't bother me is because it doesn't make any sense to me to try to be literal minded, and demand logical answers to things I sense I'm not ever going to understand. It would be like saying, 'Because I can't figure everything out neatly, therefore it isn't true'. I'm tolerant of mysteries.

If I want to speculate, I might surmise that we aren't alone in the universe, and that it's home to myriad creatures like ourselves, or not very like us at all - but all engaged in the same process of living and dying and learning, over and over, or again in some quite different endeavor. That the universe, or multiple universes even, have multiple purposes.

But that's thinking anthropomorphically, in human terms. If we're dubious about the sheer effort involved in creating such a huge universe just for little old us, it satisfies a need we have to be nice and tidy. I think that's wrong. Perhaps there's no effort at all: for the source of creation it's a mere bagatelle, the work of a moment's reflection. 'Let there be light', etc.

Nor is the universe necessarily wasted space. One might say that it's sheer unfathomable vastness has a particular purpose, to provide a metaphor for inner consciousness. As human awareness has expanded over the centuries, so too has our conception of our surroundings, from the celestial mechanics of a millennia ago, the system of rotating spheres, to the sense that space quite literally has no boundaries.

To me there's nothing to indicate that survival is tied up with the material world, so the idea of any afterlife being temporary - at least in that respect - doesn't arise. But of course, even if we believe in survival, there's no guarantee that somewhere down the road we don't get snuffed out, or gently wind down. That's where religious faith comes in, a belief in a God or a Reality that is ineffable and indestructible, that is independent of time and space, and which we are part of.

About animals: this is an interesting question, and one that a pet owner is liable to think about. It also amuses atheists. There's a vicar in a novel by EM Forster - I forget which - who is cornered at a party and asked to explain which animals are allowed into heaven. Dogs and cats, probably. But what about further down the chain? Fleas, dubious. Wasps? No, God would probably draw the line at wasps, he's bound to admit.

Actually here there are some indications from psychic literature. The picture of afterlife that comes through channeled accounts seems to include birds and beasties, although it's as vague in this as in most things. More specifically, I recall a communication through the medium Leslie Flint from a 'rag-and-bone man' who was delighted to be reunited with his old workhorse. There are also occasional mentions in near-death experiences, for instance of a person who was greeted in the afterlife by the dogs he had owned throughout his life (I think it occurs in the Fenwicks' The Truth in the Light).

As to how animals fit into it all, no idea at all.

As I say, one could let these sorts of uncertainties influence one's decisions about what ultimately to believe. But it makes more sense to me to look at the big picture, and not worry about trying to tie up all the loose ends.

Coming Out

I've often wondered what it's like to be a medium, to sense the presence of discarnate beings and interact telepathically with them. But it's not something they talk about much. I suppose they're so used to it they take it for granted.

So I was interested to hear from someone recently who is in the process of finding his feet as a medium and who talks about all this in quite a bit of detail. He doesn't like the term "medium", and isn't even completely sure yet what to make of his experiences. The point is, they are experiences , and having avoided the issue for years he's finally having to deal with it.

He's a former journalist and long time corporate affairs executive, says he's used to being sceptical and asking tough questions.

The toughest question I've had to ask is one for myself - why do I see and experience the things I can't explain? As you can imagine, when you are a 'normal' businessperson dealing daily with the standard principles and practices of corporate and family life, trying to then rationalise the other side of your life which doesn't appear rational at all ... is not an easy ride. The thought has crossed my mind on many occasions that perhaps I'm mentally ill despite being able to successfully forge a career and raise a family. I'm so mainstream but the other 'side' of me isn't - if that makes sense.

He says that all his life he has had the sense of "energies" - spirits, ghosts, souls, auras, whatever - around him and communicating with him mentally. He always found it a burden, and tried to avoid it. He also got headaches frequently, and although he could make them go away by meditating, this increased the sense of the "energies", which was worse. Now he's coming to terms with it all.

The best part of all this is when I feel the presence of an energy or spirit that I somehow 'know' to be that of my Grandma. She often 'speaks' to me through my dreams or at times when I've been willing to accept this 'gift' via intense meditation, it can feel as though she is sitting in the chair next to me and we are having a conversation even though we aren't in the true meaning of conversation. Please understand, I can't physically see her but I see an energy. It isn't on a level we understand as part of what we experience with others on earth. The best way to describe it is I see what some people might consider an aura - which then begins to form an outline of a presence of energy or light that I feel is my Grandma.

Fascinating stuff. If you want to read more he is blogging regularly about this coming-out process. This last bit is an extract from his first post, which is probably the best place to start, but there are several more recent ones on another page.

Sitting on the Fence


There's an interesting review of Randi's Prize in the new April issue of Fortean Times, by Ian Simmons. He criticises me for focusing on the "believer-sceptic tennis match". "If you're a fortean," he says, "there's no need to get involved in this backwards and forwards slog: neither the evidence for the paranormal nor the sceptical critique of it completely stack up".

Believers' evidence is elusive, open to question, unreproduceable and tainted by incidents of fakery and fraud, but impossible to dismiss completely. The sceptical critique tends to be partial, superficial and patronising; it focuses on limited aspects of what is reported, misunderstands Occam's Razor, repeatedly demonstrates that some phenomena can be faked (without showing that they have been), and aims for normalisation rather than understanding. However, it does highlight legitimate inadequacies in the believers' claims.
Neither side is particularly scientific. Believers can't produce enough evidence to convince sceptics, who can't provide a refutation effective enough to dissipate belief, and this arid pattern repeats to no one's satisfaction.

All absolutely true. But that can't be the end of the story. Does Simmons think that the arguments cancel each other out so that it's unsafe to reach a conclusion either way?

I understand why many people - perhaps most people - find it hard to take a position. They don't have enough information and aren't familiar the arguments. Agnosticism makes sense especially where religion is concerned, if we're talking about the existence or otherwise of a creator God.

But claims for the existence of psi rest on empirical observations, from reported experiences. I found that constant exposure to this material, and constantly thinking about it, led me eventually to a firm idea. And it's not clear to me why people who are in an excellent position to make a judgement - being familiar with the data and the arguments - could indefinitely avoid drawing conclusions.

So what does it mean to be a 'fortean'? I don't know much about it and went to Wikipedia for this definition:

In Chapter 1 of Book of the Damned, Charles Fort states that the ideal is to be neither a "True Believer" nor a total "Skeptic" but "that the truth lies somewhere in between".

This "somewhere in between". What does that mean exactly?

This seems to me to be a sort of metaphysical Third Way, a high-minded aloofness from the debate. It's the same thing that upsets atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins. He fumes about academics who espouse a post-modernist relativism and recognise equally valid narratives: "I respect your truth and you must respect mine".

What if our respective "truths" are mutually exclusive, and cannot both be true? Is it bad taste to argue? Should we sit in our little bubbles and not communicate? I'm with Dawkins on this. It's evasive.

At the beginning of Randi's Prize I made a somewhat dismissive remark about such things as might come under the heading forteana which I later somewhat regretted, as I realised it might have caused offence. But the reason why I focus on psi phenomena - and not things like Bigfoot, frogs falling from the sky and human combustion - is not because of the thing itself, considered as an object of curiosity, but because of what it indicates about the human situation. Why be a museum curator when you can be a scientist?

I'm motivated to answer the one essential question, one that surely overrides all kinds of evasion, whether of postmodern or fortean variety. It's this: when I die, will I still be conscious?

I'm not talking about life after earth as an abstract concept but rather what it means for moi. And however much one qualifies the word conscious - conscious of what, retaining memories or not, being the same personality or crucially changed in some way - this question can't be fudged. In the minutes that follow my clinical death, I shall either be conscious or I shall not be. There will be continuity, or there will be nothing. But which? In view of the conflicting evidence this seems to me to be a question worth trying to answer.

Being a fortean, on the other hand, appears to mean having a genuine interest in anomalous phenomena without wanting to follow them through. Take the subject of trance mediumship, as it was reported in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It means being willing to accept that the truth about all that will now never be established, as Simmons suggests, as it was so long ago, the protagonists are all dead and no one is producing equivalent phenomena today.

I just don't accept that. There are too many episodes that indicate unequivocally that paranormal phenomena occurred, where the descriptions are unambiguous and leave no possibility of doubt. To be sure, acceptance was a long time coming. But it came eventually - once I had satisfied myself that the critics' objections lacked credibility or plausibility. I don't now feel I have to go back and interview the protagonists. What would be the point? To reassure myself that they weren't making it all up?

But then, we all have different temperaments and dispositions, and go in different directions at different speeds. Agnosticism is a necessary condition for many of us, much at the time. I just don't recognise it as a something that we should be satisfied with as a permanent condition.

Tumbling into Being

Atkins an midge2

Peter Atkins and Mary Midgley were on the end of the BBC radio Today programme yesterday, the same spot that me and Richard Wiseman had a couple of weeks ago. They were interviewed by John Humphries.

Atkins is an Oxford professor of chemistry and noted atheist. He's just published a book called On Being: A scientist's exploration of the great questions of existence.

Midgley is a moral philosopher. Some years ago I read a book of hers called Evolution as a Religion, where she debunks neo-Darwinism as the "creator myth of our age" and people like Richard Dawkins as its high priests. She's scornful of the pretensions of scientists like Atkins to know the answers to the big metaphysical questions.

Atkins kicked off by saying there were three ways to get knowledge: holy books, thinking, or scientific facts. He prefers facts. Humans are in the world by accident, just "tumbled into being", he believes. In fact that's inevitable, given the way the universe works.

That's just a philosophical viewpoint, not a scientific theory, Midgley argued. Physical science exists to study physical facts. It's absurd to think that it can answer questions that are the domain of the historian, for instance, or the mathematician.

Typical philosopher's obfuscation, Atkins retorted. Science tries to identify the really deep problems of existence and goes out to answer them. It takes an optimistic view, that these questions can be answered. Not like philosophers, who are pessimists, like traffic wardens telling people what they can't do.

Midgley: But it's absurd to think that scientists can identify the deep questions like the meaning of life.

Atkins: Typical of philosophers to get hung up on non-questions like "the meaning of life". There is no "meaning", that's the whole point.

Midgley: This talk about coming into being by pure accident is rubbish. You can't talk about the whole thing being an accident, that's unintelligible.

Atkins: Science isn't rushing into explanations but edging towards them in a very self confident authoritative way. Humanity should be deeply proud that it has stumbled on a way of discovering the truth about the universe.

I know Atkins chiefly as an uber-sceptic of parapsychology (although he doesn't know anything about it) and was rooting for Midgley. But I don't think she came out on top. Too many long words, not enough kaboom! soundbites.

More seriously, scientists clearly have a lot to say that is relevant to "the meaning of life". Just arguing that they aren't competent in that area doesn't work for me. Darwinism for instance is a very powerful potential explanation for humans "tumbling into being", and is widely believed.

So I'm with Atkins on this one. Empirical facts really are the best way to understand the human situation. But which facts? I include the facts of parapsychology - field observations and experiments carried out by real scientists which call seriously into question scientists' atheistic assumptions.

Atkins doesn't. Can't even bring himself to take the idea seriously. That's because he, like a great many scientists apparently, has prejudged the question of the "meaning of life". Facts that don't fit his fixed idea simply aren't proper facts.

The reality is that scientists like Atkins rarely ask themselves the question at all. It's not something they reflect on and question. It's an absolute given. Atkins, almost more than any other scientist I know, except possibly Richard Dawkins, displays this huge delight in science as a way of establishing mastery of our situation, of owning it. It makes him "proud". In that respect Midgley is right. They are like priests administering their religion.

Midgley has for some time now been reassuring people who worry that scientists might be right and desperately hope they aren't. I'm glad the Today programme got her on the show. But she's is in her nineties now and when she goes I wonder who will take her place in these sorts of debates?

When the neo-Darwinists were rampant in the 1990s the Sunday Times journalist Bryan Appleyard also had a go at scientific pretensions in his book Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man. It was a good effort. But it's not something he has specialised in particularly. And certainly no other journalist has come close.

Parapsychologists are at loggerheads with the Atkinses and the Dawkinses, obviously. But their field is so controversial I wonder if they have the credibility to represent the opposition. So then who?

Or are we reaching the stage where we all go our own way, and think our own thoughts, and not debate the "meaning of life" in public at all any more?

Patrick Moore

Good to see Patrick Moore getting so much attention recently on the occasion of the 700th episode of Sky at Night. (For non-Brits: he's the manic presenter of a TV astronomy show which has run since 1957).

Moore was different from the start, a sort of licensed lunatic. In those days enthusiasm was regarded in Britain as something foreign, American or Italian even, not the thing at all. You never saw it on television. As kids we loved him for breaking the rules, the way he gabbled and enthused and waved his arms about.

He's been an invalid for a while, crippled by an old spine injury. I was charmed to see him talking to an interviewer about his future prospects:

'I'm near the end of my life now,' he says, pushing a plate of biscuits towards me. 'Digestive or jam tart? It doesn't worry me. I don't think it ends here, you see. If it did, the entire thing would be pointless, but the universe is not pointless. No, this isn't the end. We go on to the next stage. I shall be interested to see what it is.

One expects to hear elderly scientists proudly proclaiming their atheism, assuring us that they are going into that good night in the full and certain knowledge of their impending extinction. It's touching to see that Moore's having none of that. His scientific curiosity about the next life seems much more appropriate. Somehow just what I would have expected.

Book Review: Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there, by Richard Wiseman

Years ago I asked Richard Wiseman why he was so interested in the paranormal. If it's nonsense, as he believes, then why spend time investigating and writing about it? "Because it's fun", he said emphatically. For all his ardent disbelief he has an enthusiasm that's rare in debunking sceptics.

So I expected to find Paranormality a lively read and in that respect it doesn't disappoint. The jokes are frequent and funny, and it's mercifully free from the finger-wagging sarcasm that can make sceptic critiques so heavy-going. Wiseman doesn't seem to find paranormal belief morally reprehensible - at least, not much. He just thinks it's mistaken and delights in revealing the tricks. The book blends serious psychology - conveyed with a light touch and enlivened with "how-to" panels that show readers how they too can pretend to be psychic or have an out-of-body experience - with comical episodes drawn from the literature of psychic research, of which there is a rich supply.

Throughout history,Wiseman says,

a handful of researchers have dedicated their lives to discovering what supposedly paranormal phenomena tell us about our behaviour, beliefs and brain. Daring to take a walk on the weird side, these pioneering mavericks have carried out some of the strangest research ever conducted, including removing the head of the world's top thought-reader, infiltrating several cults, attempting to weigh the souls of the dying, and testing a talking mongoose. Just as the mysterious Wizard of Oz turned out to be a man behind a curtain pushing buttons and pulling levers, so their work has yielded surprising and important insights into the psychology of everyday life and the human psyche.

Wiseman says he was inspired as a first year psychology student by hearing Susan Blackmore talking on television about the value of investigating paranormal claims, not to find out whether they are genuine, but rather to understand the psychology that lies behind people's beliefs and experiences. Here he focuses on psychological studies that can help explain, for instance, why people think they have seen a ghost or had an out-of-body experience. In one experiment carried out by statistician James Houran, two groups of people were asked to walk round a disused theatre, which had no reputation for being haunted, and ask to describe how they felt. One group, having been told that the building was haunted, reported ghostly sensations, while the one that was told it was simply undergoing renovation reported nothing of the kind, an indication of the role played by suggestibility in these situations.

In this chapter I enjoyed the account of a farcical ghost hunt at Hampton Court Palace, when Wiseman was invited to investigate ghostly sightings of Catherine Howard, one of Henry VIII's doomed wives. The proceedings kicked off with a press conference in which a palace official talked about the history of the haunting, followed by Wiseman describing his forthcoming investigation. There was a brief break before Wiseman went on, and he had just stepped out to get some fresh air when a strange thing happened.

A car containing two tipsy teenagers drove slowly past me. One of the teenagers wound down the window and threw an egg at me. The egg smashed on my shirt. Unable to change, I tried to remove the worst of the stains and then returned to the press conference. A few minutes into my talk one of the journalists noticed the marks on my shirt and, assuming that it was ectoplasm asked whether Catherine Howard had already slimed me. I replied 'Yes. This is going to be a tougher investigation that I first thought.'

Besides ghosts, there's a section on fortune-telling, in which we learn that "for over a century researchers have tested the claims of mediums and psychics and found them wanting". This contains a very full description of the cold-reading method, with no fewer than six different techniques revealed by a phony psychic (although many psychics use them without being aware of it, the author suggests).

Susan Blackmore's speculations are given an airing in a chapter on out-of-body experiences, although typically this begins with the decidedly odd episode of an American physician Duncan MacDougall comparing the weights of terminal hospital patients immediately before and after their deaths in order to establish the weight of the human soul (21 grams, he decided). In a chapter on mind over matter there's a good deal about James Hydrick, who pretended to move pencils and turn pages of a directory by mind power - he actually did it by blowing on them as demonstrated by James Randi on television. Wiseman also describes a trip to India to investigate "Godman" Swami Premenanda and his gift for materialising vibhuti, the fine ash used in Hindi worship (it dried up when a clear plastic bag was placed around his hand).

The Fox sisters figure largely in a chapter titled "Talking to the Dead", with Margaret Fox explaining that the mysterious "raps" heard in their Hydseville home in 1848 were actually caused by she and her sister bumping apples tied to string on the floor (to fool their mum). There's also a full description of the experiment carried out by Michael Faraday, demonstrating that the phenomenon of spirits moving tables was actually caused by sitters themselves, applying pressure to the surface of the table. Other chapters cover Harry Price's abortive investigation of a talking mongoose, the damaging effects of brainwashing and how to avoid it, and the phenomenon of precognitive dreaming (it's merely an appearance caused by coincidence).

In sum this is a decidedly light confection, with the emphasis as much on entertainment as on serious psychology. It will confirm sceptics in their view that the paranormal is just a bit of nonsense, not at all true, but "fun to talk about at parties", as Wiseman says. That's fine, but I'm afraid it will also convince many people who haven't thought about the subject much that Wiseman really has, as Richard Dawkins suggests in his typically rhetorical back-jacket puff, "blown away the psychic fog and let in the clear light of reason".

I'm often irritated by book reviews that criticise authors for not writing the book the critic thinks they should have written. On its own terms Paranormality brilliantly does the job it sets out to do - a cheerful popularisation in the style of Wiseman's previous books like Quirkology and 59 Seconds, and which could do well.

But in the wider scale of things it matters if an author selects material in such a way as to create a deeply partisan picture of his subject. The really remarkable thing about this book is the absence from it of any mention of research, of which there is a great abundance, that supports the genuineness of the ideas that Wiseman takes to be false. He doesn't argue with them, he just ignores them.

Blackmore and Wiseman have some claim to be serious investigators, but there's no mention of parapsychologists such as Stanley Krippner, Charles Honorton or Dean Radin, nor of biologist Rupert Sheldrake, one of the most active scientists in the field, let alone late nineteenth century figures such as Myers, Hodgson, Gurney or William James, who presumably are all included in the statement: 'For over a century researchers have tested the claims of mediums and psychics and found them wanting'.

For instance the book begins by presenting Wiseman's encounter with Jaytee, the telepathic dog, as debunking a media claim, yet without once mentioning Sheldrake's far more extensive work nor the complexities involved in this research. Under pressure, Wiseman seems to have conceded that his meagre data actually confirms Sheldrake's and that they merely differ over the interpretation, but that is not at all how it appears from his account. Sheldrake isn't allowed a look in.

Nor is there any mention of the very considerable remote viewing and ganzfeld telepathy experiments. Wiseman has been involved in this work as a critic, and as I understand it has run out of objections to the point where he now agrees remote viewing and ganzfeld have been proved, at least by the standards of other sciences - he just considers that to be insufficient. There's an discussion to be had about that, to be sure, but it's a long way from the "all-in-the-mind" thesis adopted here.

Some of the studies Wiseman describes seem potentially relevant, but others look trivial and their application uncertain. I've no doubt that suggestibility plays a part in ghost episodes, but is it really surprising if people who have been asked to describe what they feel while walking around a supposedly haunted building reward the experimenters with what they seem to be angling for? And isn't that process itself richly confirmed by psychological studies?

Traditional ghostly hauntings actually play a rather small part in serious psychic research, whereas there has been some interesting work on apparitions, a topic dismissed here in two sentences. So-called poltergeist episodes are hardly mentioned at all. How would an event like the Miami disturbances investigated by William Roll in 1967 - in which more than 200 movements of objects were logged by competent witnesses, with no person nearby, and no evidence of vibrations, strings or mechanical contrivances whatever - fit into a book like this?

Again, if one was exposed to the history of the Fox sisters, instead of the sanitised myth that crops up in all sceptic books, and which Wiseman faithfully reproduces here, one would soon start questioning how two little girls bumping apples on the floor could induce panic among hundreds of people, with many witnesses giving signed statements about their inability to trace the cause. It would only require a tiny bit of critical thought.

How ironic, too, given the huge importance attached by critics to the distortions of memory as a means to explain away troublesome claims, that in this instance they ignore statements made barely two weeks after the onset of the disturbances while accepting at face value one that was made 40 years later.

Faraday spun another illusion with his explanation for table-turning, which for all its ingenuity doesn't remotely explain what was widely reported. But if your author isn't telling you that, how will you know?

"When people with strong beliefs are presented with ambiguous information relevant to their views, they will see what they want to see". So says the author in the chapter on fortune telling, referring to the phenomenon of selective memory. Absolutely so. Psychology affects all of us, sceptics included. Oddly, although they are often psychologists themselves, they just don't seem to be aware of it.

Sceptical Journeys

Sceptics are naturally interested in why people believe in things that don't exist. That's what Richard Wiseman writes about in his new book Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there, which I'm half way through and hope to review here soon. But if psi phenomena is real then one might also ask why some of us can't believe things that do exist, why we don't see what is there. To me that's equally fascinating, yet entirely overlooked by sceptical psychologists, for obvious reasons.

The source for yesterday's post Science and the Séance was a 1985 book by Anita Gregory called The Strange Case of Rudi Schneider. It's as lucid and informative book on a séance medium as you can find anywhere, and I can recommend it.

Gregory recalls first hearing about Rudi Schneider in a psychology lecture at Oxford in the late 1940s. The lecturer described to his startled students how he had once attended a séance with this young man, and had witnessed objects flying around in the air and a hand materializing out of nothing. They could disbelieve it all they wanted, he said, with extreme lack of tact, but he was a lot more qualified than they were and they should take his word for it. She remembers how she responded with "impatient contempt, a little tinged with pity".

How could a learned man believe such nonsense? And how could he bring himself to admit such absurd notions in public? Why didn't someone stop him from making such a fool of himself? I never entertained even for a moment the possibility that there could have been some real experience underlying his assertions.

So Gregory utterly dismissed Schneider and all his doings. She came up with no counter hypothesis. She didn't imagine the lecturer was insane or even that Schneider was an accomplished fraud or an exceptional hypnotists. She just rejected the whole thing as being "too utterly absurd to be worthy of further consideration".

A few years later she attended a conference where she met her future husband. She told him about the lecture and asked how it was possible that any serious person could believe such "balderdash"? What had gone wrong with this man? To her consternation he said he too had been to sittings with Rudi Schneider and seen the same things - objects flying around in the air without any ordinary cause. His companion also said he had seen it. They were both manifestly sane, and so she stayed and argued.

From reading the data on Schneider she subsequently became convinced that it was as they said. Over time, Gregory says, she came to regard her original position as a "rather childlike nineteenth-century type of faith in "science-as-I-imagine-it-to-be".

Also I have lost some of my passionate determination to believe in a universe that necessarily excludes even the possibility of any of the claims of religion. To put it crudely, when I was a student I thought that there could be no ghosts because a belief in ghosts was incompatible with science and suggestive of some of the most objectionable tenets of religion. Stated thus baldly, it looks naïve, but I did not then formulate my attitude explicitly.

We all go on different journeys, from different starting points. These sorts of conversions also happen in the opposite direction, with people who are avidly interested in paranormal phenomena turning against it when they discover the power of trickery and misperception.

But the mental process Gregory has described here must be quite widely experienced too. Paranormal believers aren't all the credulous types that populate the sceptical imagination: many have had their scepticism ground down by exposure to responsible scientific investigation that left no room for doubt. And when they encounter hostility because of their new beliefs they understand only too well what lies behind it.

Science and the Séance

Talking about séance phenomena, as I was a short while ago (Scole, Feb 7), I've been thinking about what value it offers as evidence of the supernormal. Some people think it's the strongest: a source of dramatic table levitations, raps, apports and ectoplasmic phantoms that in its heyday between 1850 and 1930 was witnessed by thousands, and endorsed by reputable scientists.

Trouble is, the séance conditions make it all quite dubious. Even if complete darkness wasn't always required - and investigations often took place in reasonable light - investigating scientists could never convince sceptics that they had not allowed themselves to be tricked.

But what if technology could be used to rule out fraud, for instance relay switches and sensors, infrared filming, etc? In that case surely it would be possible to establish the truth one way or the other. That might not have been possible in the nineteenth century, but these days there seems no excuse for not doing it. So people who shun it, as the Scole group did, are implicitly raising suspicions.

The earliest use of technology in a séance situation that I know of was applied in the French investigation of Eusapia Palladino at the Sorbonne, which involved 43 sittings over four years from 1905. There were several levitations of the séance table off all four feet, to a height of up to 30 centimetres, lasting for up to seven seconds. The light was fair, Palladino's hands and legs were said to be well controlled. The report states:

These levitations were registered in a manner which left no doubt whatever as to their objective character. Each leg separately had been provided with a contact key which completed an electric circuit when the leg was off the ground. Each of these circuits operated a Desprez indicator writing on a revolving drum. If then any leg experienced a pressure from below-either from the floor or from the medium's foot-the corresponding index would not work. So when all four scribers worked together it was certain that the legs were really off the ground and not otherwise supported by or resting on anything else.

Yet although the scientists seemed to have been convinced, particularly Pierre Curie, their conclusions are weakened by Palladino's reputation as a shifty charlatan.

A much more sophisticated set-up was employed during investigations of Rudi Schneider in the early 1930s. Schneider came to notice as part of a family circle in their home town of Braunau in Austria (also Hitler's birthplace) in 1919. In the 1920s he was investigated by the German scientist Schrenk-Notzing, and following the latter's death in 1929 was taken up by Harry Price, the British psychic researcher in London, and then in Paris by Eugene Osty at the Institut Métapsychique International.

Schneider seems not to have fitted the usual mould of the spiritualist medium. He had been co-opted to join his family's regular séances from the age of eleven, and although he seemed to provide a lot of the "power" mediumship wasn't really his thing - he preferred girls and football. He just went along with the scientists who wanted to investigate him and gave every impression of being amiable and honest, if not terribly bright.

In the early years the phenomena in Schneider sittings were said to be sensational. All the usual things: lights, levitations, apports, musical instruments that played themselves, also a materialised hand that could be observed handling objects and which could be grasped. There were also the usual scandals, which seem mainly to have been generated by sceptics alleging fraud without actually exposing it. There was an odd and particularly damaging episode later in his career when he was being investigated by the celebrity psychic researcher Harry Price in London (although there are good reasons for thinking this was made up by Price to spite rival researchers who had procured Schneider's services).

In his early twenties Schneider's powers seemed to wane and in later séances the phenomena dwindled to almost nothing. But by this stage he was being investigated by Osty in Paris, who had rigged up a quite complex technical arrangement that established its objective existence and that it was no trick. So this "almost nothing" ended up being far more significant than the most sensational effects.

Boiled down to essentials, Osty's set-up involved a source of ultraviolet light built into the ceiling and four cameras to take pictures from different angles, backed up by a magnesium flash-light He also had infrared beams enclosing the séance table and connected to the cameras, which would go off if they were interrupted in any way. That would provide a visual record of any phenomena that occurred on or around the table, and would also expose any trickery.

Schneider was "controlled" during his trance by a personality calling herself "Olga" who, as is the way of these things, appeared to be co-operating with the investigators in trying to achieve paranormal effects. In the Paris series she was having no luck, and it was decided to send Schneider home for a break. But first they decided to have one more go, and "Olga" thought she could get the "force" to displace an object on the table. She talked about the force building, and then suddenly the flash went off and the cameras clicked.

The pictures were developed with great excitement and revealed ... absolutely nothing. Rudi was seen slumped in his chair beside the cabinet (a curtained recess), his back to the table, his hands and legs held by controllers on either side. The object on the table had not been touched. Everyone and everything was in its proper place. But something clearly had interrupted the infrared beam.

In the next séance Osty rigged up a bell which would ring whenever the beam was being interrupted. In subsequent sittings Rudi, as Olga, would announce that the force was about to be released, and the bell would ring. There proved to be a clear correlation between her statements and the production of the effect:

As soon as the séance was resumed Olga announced that there would be more force and the bell rang for nine seconds. Olga said that there was a still more, and the bell rang for another 12 seconds. She then said that there was still some more but rather little, and the bell rang three seconds. She then stated that they would be now be more, and there was 13 seconds ringing, then 10, then eight, and 35, then four, then three and four.

During the next part of the sitting Olga again announced repeatedly that the force was coming out of the cabinet and going onto the table, and there was ringing of the bell lasting four seconds, 14, 32, 76, 34, 25, 53 and 23 seconds, occurring each time after Olga announced the emanation of the force... There was a brief ringing, then Rudi woke up.

Then Osty replaced the bell with a galvanometer, which would measure not just when the beam was being interrupted but also by how much; it showed that the deflections were never complete but between 1% and 70%.

The effect was easily repeated in subsequent investigations in London. However Schneider's ability soon disappeared and no further advance was made. That seems to have been the end of it. Schneider was the last medium of this kind to attract the attention of scientists and the focus shifted to supposedly less controversial activities like card-guessing.

Can Osty's results be explained away? As long as Rudi Schneider is identified as a medium, one of that despised class of alleged charlatans, then I suppose he will always be suspect. Also, it's clearly a very rare ability, not something that can be demonstrated with anyone. So it's not going to convince a sceptic, who will probably demand all sorts of assurances that the apparatus wasn't defective and/or that the investigator wasn't an idiot or a charlatan. Sceptics have always been dismissive of Targ and Puthoff's experiments with Uri Geller at the Stanford Research Institute in 1974.

Other gifted psychics have been investigated from time to time - again, to the sound of giant rasperries from the sceptical community. But I can't recall anything like this being used and I wonder why not? If we want a scientific method to demonstrate psychokinesis, then surely it's as good as any.

Breakfast at the Beeb

Bumped into Professor Richard Wiseman today at the BBC Television Centre. Actually it wasn't by chance - we were being interviewed together for the Today programme on the occasion of his new book Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there. They gave us three and a half minutes each at the end of the show to make our respective cases.

It can be heard here .

Our paths used to cross at SPR events and it was good to see him again. His ardent scepticism is a turn-off for many people, but in person he's charming and impossible to dislike.

By chance I also have a piece in today's Guardian, the Response column making counter-arguments to his book extract in the paper last week, on precognitive dreams. This is kicking up a storm in the comments section. I've seen this happen to other people, so I know what to expect, and am strangely unmoved by it.