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Sai Baba


So farewell then, Sai Baba. Not immortal obviously, but an extraordinary human being by any standards. Even if what he did was just close-up conjuring, then, as with the most convincing psychics - Uri Geller and Daniel Home, for instance - he took it to new and fantastic levels.

I remember reading books about Sai Baba years ago, at a time when I had yet to make up my mind about psychic phenomena, and being deeply confused. How was it possible that an ordinary person could make things appear from thin air? Sweets, little ornaments, or quite big ones sometimes - he just waved his hand in the air and there it was. As he walked around he would produce these things and give them to people. Of course it can't be done - it's just conjuring. But somehow it wasn't.

Sai Baba didn't do investigations, but in the 1970s Erlendur Haraldsson and Karlis Osis got close enough to observe him in action and to interview some of the people around him. Haraldsson subsequently wrote a book, Miracles Are My Visiting Cards. He carefully considered all the evidence and pointed to some quite serious difficulties for any fraud hypothesis. I don't have the book, but I do have an article which he co-authored from the SPR Journal, April 1995, in which he writes:

Apparently Sai Baba sometimes produces objects in response to specific situations, on demand, or, for example, fruits out of season and not locally available, or rare objects. Sometimes in group audiences Sai Baba may, for example, produce an amount of sweets onto the palm of someone's hand. He then distributes all the sweets until they are finished. Then a new person comes along who was not seen by Sai Baba, or was absent, and asks for a piece. Sai Baba then produces more of the same thing. Haraldsson and Osis observed such an incident.

After being outdoors for hours Sai Baba is reported to produce steaming-hot foods, so hot that those present find them hard to hold. He does this dressed, as always in the hot Indian climate, in one thin robe, which, when there is a breeze, falls rather tight to his body. He also seems to produce his phenomena with the same ease and frequently whether he is in his interview room, travelling in a car or an aeroplane, or when he is somewhere outdoors on a journey.

Haraldsson points out that for over a period of five decades Sai Baba had a number of close associates, who inevitably must have known if fraud was taking place, since they had access to his living quarters and took care of his personal belongings. The guru was constantly handing these objects out - as many as ten or twenty a day - and they would have to be procured and stored. Over the years many of these people left the ashram and some subsequently turned their back on Sai Baba and left his movement altogether. It's difficult to imagine that somewhere along the line one of these people would not have blown the whistle if their former employer was indulging in a tacky deception.

Haraldsson also interviewed a number of people at length for his book and says they all reported that they were as baffled by the phenomena the day they left Baba's ashram as the first day they observed them. Some were highly critical of other aspects of his life or teaching - there have been particularly damaging allegations of sexual abuse, for instance - but this was something they had no explanation for.

So what about the films that claim to expose him. The most ubiquitous of them was made in 1992 by an Indian TV station and shows Sai Baba in front of an audience in a public ceremony taking a large memento of some kind from an assistant and presenting it to an architect. Immediately after handing it over he swirls his right hand in the air and produces a gold chain, which he also hands over.

A newspaper, Hyderabad's Deccan Chronicle analysed the performance and claimed it showed him covertly receiving the chain from the assistant under cover of the memento. According to the paper's "highly reliable sources", the fraud was so obvious that Sai Baba's top staff panicked when they saw the tape on the monitors and ordered all copies of it to be destroyed.

Haraldsson went to India to investigate, taking Richard Wiseman with him to supply his expertise on close-up magic. The pair persuaded the newspaper to dig out the film and show it to them (this was before it was publicly available, obviously). This is from their article in the SPR Journal:

To assess the possibility of sleight-of-hand it is important to study two crucial moments on the videotape. The first is when Sai Baba puts his hands under the memento apparently to support its weight. There is a moment of hesitation as the weight is shifted, during which Sai Baba's left hand and [his assistant's] right hand touch, or nearly touch. At this moment the necklace could have changed hands from [the assistant] to Sai Baba.

The other crucial moment is when Sai Baba lets go of the memento, places his right hand under the memento, and possibly touches his left hand. At this moment Sai Baba could have shifted the necklace from his left to his right hand.

In the Deccan Chronicle it is stated that Sai Baba "takes the gold chain from his personal assistant". However, this definitely cannot be seen on the tape. The chain is not seen until it appears at the end of the swirling circular movement of Sai Baba's right hand.

The meeting and touching of Sai Baba's and the assistant's hands would have given the assistant an opportunity to pass an object into Sai Baba's hand. The question is, however, did such a transfer take place? The tape does not contain enough information to assess this question with any certainty. If such transfer did not occur there needs to be another explanation for why Sai Baba moved his hand over to his assistant's hand. Was it to help him support the heavy memento until it was safely in the hands of the architect, or was there some other reason? We can only guess.

Wiseman had the tape enhanced by a specialist fraud-busting company, which made it clearer to view but did not reveal any additional information.

The film certainly provides evidence of the means by which the act of materialization could be faked. What it doesn't provide is any direct evidence that it was faked. As is usually the case that little detail doesn't matter. After it had circulated among sceptics' groups abroad the British press simply declared that the supposed miracle had been revealed as a "tawdry sleight-of-hand".

I wonder if there will now be some kind of reassessment of Sai Baba in the West. The psychic stuff in his biog is hard to avoid and it will be interesting to see how commentators deal with it.

For me the real-fake dichotomy is not the most interesting thing. It's hard to avoid comparing "miracle-workers" like Sai Baba - and there have been others, in India especially - with Jesus of Nazareth, at least in the context of supposed miracles. It's been a cliché in the past century and a half, even among Christians, to overlook the New Testament miracles as a distraction. What made Jesus so astonishing to his contemporaries is to us, in our more knowing, sophisticated times, merely an embarrassment. If we're interested in the man at all it's because of his essential goodness.

I expect that distinction will be made in the weeks to come with regard to Sai Baba. The only obituary I've seen so far is in the Guardian, which one would expect to consider him and his ilk a repulsive throwback to the dark days of superstition. In fact the article was quite balanced, dismissing the miracles as "gimmicks", but recognizing the very considerable achievements of Sai Baba's charitable foundations, for instance the costly feat of bringing a rich new supply of fresh drinking water to Chennai and improving the lives of millions.

But are psychism and spirituality to be separated? Eastern mystical religions have long viewed psychic phenomena - siddhis - as a concomitant of spirituality, an inevitable experience on the spiritual path. We Westerners can call this a "narrative", implying that it's a convention fashioned by the cultural imagination, and we can then slot Sai Baba neatly into it. Spelled out, this would mean he was just faking because it was the way to be recognized as a super-star guru. Doubtless, that's how some secularists would view Jesus too. Conjuring tricks, coincidental healings and other exaggerated claims were a way of claiming the attention of the masses and getting them to listen to his homilies about living a better life.

Twenty years ago I would probably have gone along with that sort of construction. Now I'm not at all so sure.

Einstein and Psi

It's always interesting to know what the super-stars of the science world think about parapsychology.

I'm reading Esprit: Men and Women of Parapsychology, Volume 1, a collection of reminiscences by some leading psi researchers, first published in 1987 and recently brought out in a new edition. These are investigators such as Jule Eisenbud, Montague Ullman, Gertrude Schmeidler, Jan Ehrenwald and Hans Bender. I'm barely halfway through, and may give it a detailed look in a later post. In the meantime, I picked out this nugget about Einstein.

As is well known, Einstein wrote a brief preface to Mental Radio, Upton Sinclair's 1930 book about ESP experiments. Typically these involve Sinclair sitting in his study and drawing something on a piece of paper, and his wife Craig in another room trying to reproduce it. More often than not she achieved a close match, as the book's illustrations show. It's an informal study, obviously, but a classic of its type.

Einstein's contribution consists of just one paragraph:

I have read the book of Upton Sinclair with great interest and am convinced that the same deserves the most earnest consideration, not only of the laity, but also of the psychologists by profession. The results of the telepathic experiments carefully and plainly set forth in this book stand surely far beyond those which a nature investigator holds to be thinkable. On the other hand, it is out of the question in the case of so conscientious an observer and writer as Upton Sinclair that he is carrying on a conscious deception of the reading world; his good faith and dependability are not to be doubted. So if somehow the facts he has set forth here rest not upon telepathy, but upon some unconscious hypnotic influence from person to person, this also would be of high psychological interest. In no case should the psychologically interested circles pass over this book heedlessly.

Was the great man giving ESP his blessing? Not exactly. The muddled appeal to "unconscious hypnotic influence from person to person" - what is that exactly, if not telepathy? Or did he really mean sensory cues? - suggests someone struggling to accommodate facts that contradict all experience and reason.

But the mere fact of someone of his standing not sucking his teeth and crying "fraud" is enough for it to be treated as a positive. At least he was curious and open-minded - an example for others to follow.

A few years later Einstein corresponded with Jan Ehrenwald, a psychiatrist who was writing about psi experiences emerging in therapeutic interactions, and wanted his endorsement. Naturally he flagged up the work of JB Rhine at Duke on ESP in card-guessing and psychokinesis in dice-throwing. What did Einstein think?

Einstein said he could find no explanation whatsoever for Rhine's results, but made his scepticism clear. He was alienated by the lack of any attenuation with distance, that it didn't seem to make any difference how far separated the subject was from the agent or the experimenter. In his belief this indicated the presence of a "systematic error".

He went on:

I wrote the introductory notes for Upton Sinclair's book owing to [our] personal friendship in such a way that it did not express my lack of conviction without compelling me to sacrifice my honesty in doing so. I must openly confess to you my scepticism due not so much to a close acquaintance with the relevant empirical observations and experiences but to my lifelong activity in the field of physics. I must also confess that I have not had any experiences in my own life that would point to interpersonal relationships that were not occasioned by sensory cues. When I add that the public tends to attribute more weight to my utterances than would be justified in view of my ignorance in so many things, I feel all the more duty bound to exercise utmost caution in reserve in these areas.

Having now read Ehrenwald's book Einstein wrote a second letter as follows:

I can judge as a layman only, and cannot state that I arrived at an affirmative or negative conclusion. In any case, it appears to me that from the physicist's point of view, we have no right to rule out a priori the possibility of telepathy. For that the foundations of our science are too uncertain and incomplete...

On the one hand I have no objection to the reliability of the method. Yet I find suspicious that clairvoyance [tests] yield the same probability as telepathy, and that the subject distance from the target cards i.e. from the agent, should have no influence upon results. This is improbable to the highest degree and consequently the result is suspicious.

He adds that he attaches more weight to tests with gifted subjects such as Craig Sinclair than to large-scale statistical experiments in which the discovery of a minute systematic error may upset everything.

He concludes:

In any case, your book was very stimulating to me and has somewhat "softened up" my attitude which from the onset was distinctly negative towards the whole problem. One should not go through this world with blinders...

It was a put-down, however tactfully expressed. Ehrenwald was "stunned" by it, as he later described in a belated reply written after Einstein's death and sent to "the Elysian Fields, please forward". However he noted that the scientist was open to the more obviously impressive "macro" experiments, and ventured to suggest that Rhine's experiments were simply indications of the same thing on the "micro" level. By now, too, Einstein's deep discomfort with "spooky action at a distance" had become evident in his rejection of quantum mechanics.

All of this seems perfectly reasonable to me. Many people would agree that the actual experience of ESP is far more persuasive than statistical indications of it. As a physicist Einstein had particular reasons for doubting claims about psi, but he conceded he didn't know much about it and wasn't prepared to go further than stating a general opinion in private.

Martin Gardner makes a similar point in an article about the correspondence (republished in Science Good Bad and Bogus), praising Einstein's "great tact and politeness" and "characteristic humility" - qualities which were comically absent from Gardner's own responses to parapsychology. Of course the snarky sceptic has simple explanations for what so mightily puzzled the great scientist. Recording errors by experimenters in Rhine's psi experiments would have neatly accounted for the distance paradox, as it wouldn't have made any difference where the subject was situated, two feet away or on another planet. And "spelling out" Einstein's suggestions about the Sinclairs, perhaps they were "unconsciously suggesting" to each other what they should draw.

Neither of which would remotely explain the experiments as they were actually described. Gardner would not have cared about that, but one feels that Einstein might have seen the point, if he'd engaged with them more closely.

Blum on Skeptico

There's a great new interview posted on Skeptico with Deborah Blum, author of Ghost Hunters talking to Steve Volk, author of Fringe-ology which is out in June.

I don't know too much about Volk but will be interested to see his book. Blum's is an excellent survey of nineteenth-century psychic research - balanced, and helpful, to me at least, in the sense of providing a lot of personal and historical colour to what to me had been more of an academic subject

As a journalist myself who has tried to interest people in psychic research it's interesting to get other people's take on this. I'm unknown, so have no reputation to lose by getting involved with this stuff. Blum by contrast is a highly respected science writer and potentially might have had quite a lot to lose. I like the way she talks in the interview about being willing to cash in on some of that credibility. It's true that she doesn't take sides in the book, which she got some criticism for, but merely taking an intelligent interest implies a certain willingness to accept the genuineness of her subject matter.

I'm also fascinated by revelations of the responses she gets when talking to scientifically-oriented audiences.

I mean literally, I was at the University of Florida talking about another book and they said, "What are you working on?" I said, "Well, this book about ghost hunting." And they said, "Oh, let us tell you about our haunted laboratory." Or I was at a meeting with a bunch of animal researchers and I was sitting next to a very respected scientist from Stanford who immediately started telling me about the telepathic experiences she'd had with a friend of hers who is a scientist at Southwestern University.

I thought to myself, 'This whole world exists that really those of us in the skeptic community never see because people just don't tell you that.' So the other side of it is from the mainstream science side, it's really difficult to measure the frequencies of this event because people don't share them.

She also talks about a talk she gave about Ghost Hunters at the National Academy of Sciences in California.

I went out and they'd sold the place out. There were about 1,000 people. I was talking about this crisis apparition thing and I told a story that I tell in the book about an experience my father-in-law had and compared it to some of the 19th century ones.

One of the women in the audience, an incredibly sharp group, said, "Well, I wonder how many people here have had this experience?" So I stopped the lecture and said, "Everyone put up their hands if they've had an experience with a crisis apparition or know someone who has." You know, close to half the people in the room put up their hands. It was really phenomenal.

The extent to which thinking people accept the reality of paranormal phenomena is a bit of a mystery to me, especially here in Britain. The opposition to it seems pretty strong to me, and as I've mentioned a few times before, mainstream journalists very rarely mention it - it's conspicuous by its absence. Yet Rupert Sheldrake, for one, always says that scientists are quite willing to talk to him in private about their experiences. And here's a noted science writer telling us that some four to five hundred people in a science gathering admitted having a brush with the paranormal, whether directly or indirectly.

Climate Farce

I wrote here about Berkeley physicist Richard Muller setting up an independent project to establish the truth about climate change. Muller had sided with sceptics, so they were keenly anticipating his conclusions.

I wasn't expecting to hear from him so soon. But Muller testified at last week's Congressional hearing on climate science, and it turns out his preliminary results find global warming trend "very similar to that reported by the prior groups".

As New York Times op-ed writer Paul Krugman writes, the sceptics are seething.

Just a few weeks ago Anthony Watts, who runs a prominent climate denialist Web site, praised the Berkeley project and piously declared himself "prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong." But never mind: once he knew that Professor Muller was going to present those preliminary results, Mr. Watts dismissed the hearing as "post normal science political theater." And one of the regular contributors on his site dismissed Professor Muller as "a man driven by a very serious agenda."

Of course, Krugman points out, nobody who's been following this discussion believed for a moment that sceptics would accept a result confirming global warming. Any more, I'd add, than psi-sceptics would ever acknowledge the truth of any evidence of psi.

The Republicans fielded an economist, a lawyer and a marketer among their "expert witnesses" (the lawyer argued that the gas emissions should not be declared a health threat, because they had been rising steadily for the past century, during which time public health had improved).

As Krugman suggests, it would be funny if it wasn't so serious.

Lancastrian Apparition

I've had a bit of correspondence from people who heard me talking about crisis apparitions on Radio 4 last month. For instance Chris from Lancaster writes to tell me about a late nineteenth century case said to have occurred in the village of Chipping near where he lives. He saw it mentioned in a 1960s walking book by a local author named Alan Lawson, but doesn't think the story is well known locally.

In the early part of the last century, young Phillip Weld went on a group picnic excursion on the river from St Edmund's college, Ware. Towards the end of the afternoon, he dived off the river bank but failed to surface. The other boys and a master who was in charge dived in and searched but failed to find Phillip. They managed to persuade the lock keeper to lower the surface of the water. Phillip's body was found wedged in the mud of the river bed.

The corpse was taken to the college, and the headmaster set off early the next morning to inform the boy's parents, who lived at Lulworth. He travelled in his own chaise for most of the day. As he entered the park of Lulworth he was met by Phillip's father who stopped the coach. "You have no need to tell me the sad news," said Phillips father. "We all know here that he was drowned yesterday." The headmaster was astonished, as it was impossible in those days for news to have travelled so fast.

Settled before the fire in the study, Phillip's father continued. "Yesterday evening my wife, my daughter and I were taking a short stroll through the grounds. On approaching a junction in the park my wife exclaimed that Phillip was standing at the corner. We all looked and saw Phillip with two figures in clerical dress on either side, both young and smiling. Phillip and the other figures were solid, we could not see through them, and the only curious feature was that Phillip was wet through, so much so, that the water formed a pool at his feet. My daughter ran towards the apparition, but as she approached they vanished from view. After returning to the house to comfort my wife, who was very upset, we concluded that Phillip must have been drowned and the figures were sent to tell us.

Phillip's father had no idea who the young men in clerical dress were, and a mystery it remained, until Mr and Mrs Weld came to stay at Leagram Hall near Chipping. After mass on the Sunday the priest invited them into the sacristy. In those days the Jesuits had charge of the church and etchings of Jesuit saints were hung on the walls. As they entered Mr Weld suddenly shouted "That's one of them, one of those who appeared with Phillip!" The picture was of Stanislaus Kostka, an obscure saint who was supposed to have care of drowned persons. The priest presented the picture to the Welds and it was hung in Leagram Hall.

Chris says he has looked into the life of Stanislaus Kostka and finds he is often depicted standing by a fountain holding a piece of wet linen.

The story is similar enough to many others collected by psychic researchers at this time, in no fewer than four details. One is that the apparition was collectively perceived, in this case by three people. That is actually quite unusual, and applies to a minority of cases in the literature. But it's quite significant, because if more than one person can see it, it's vastly less likely to be a subjective hallucination than if only one person had seen it. (I have come across attempts to explain it away, but they're convoluted, and life's too short).

A more common feature, of course, is the coincidence of the apparition appearing at the time of death of the person who is seen. When I raised this on the programme Professor Richard Wiseman, who was sitting next to me, immediately explained that this is an effect of the Law of Large Numbers - in other words pure coincidence. If we hadn't been running out of time I'd have pointed out that this requires us to believe that people are seeing apparitions all the time, but only bother mentioning it to anyone if the person they saw is later discovered to have dropped dead at precisely that moment. It's true that apparitions are more commonly experienced than is generally supposed - a fact that psychic researchers themselves uncovered - but not on the scale required to make this thesis work.

Then there's the fact of an unknown figure in the vision being later recognized. This forms a significant third group in the literature, particularly with hauntings of specific locations, for instance of hotels where a guest encounters a ghost and later matches the figure to a photograph.

Finally there's the veridical information - in this case, Phillip appearing to be wet through and a puddle forming at his feet - that conveys what has happened to him. Again, this is very common in the episodes that researchers collected: for instance the apparition of a soldier might appear with a bloody chest wound, indicating that he had just been killed in battle,

For all four features to turn up in a single case ought to make this a strong one. However one would look for one or more of the parties to have written an account immediately afterwards, and for researchers to have got corroborating testimony from all three family members, the headmaster, etc.

As it is, it's purely anecdotal - at least as far as I know; I haven't come across it anywhere before. And the fact of one of the figures turning out to be a sixteenth century Polish saint somewhat weakens it. That kind of colourful twist just doesn't occur much in the literature. In fact I can't recall a case at all like it. Ordinariness, repeated over a large number of instances, makes the phenomenon seem like a consistent human experience, where a more dramatic case like this seems more made up. Which is not to say that it is, only to acknowledge that the story departs from the norms.

Incidentally, Chris adds: "Chipping and the Hodder valley is one of the most beautiful places in England, and around Stonyhurst, on the lower reaches of the river Hodder, they call it "Fairy Land". Well worth anyone stopping off on a journey to the Lake District." I just might.