I’ve been corresponding with Patricia Pearson, author of Opening Heaven’s Door which I reviewed here recently. She says she did a long radio interview and afterwards ‘a smart woman who'd had an NDE in 1952 listened to it, and remarked: "I can't believe the interviewer asked you the same questions they asked me in 1980!” ’
It’s the big anomaly. We think of our society as being forward-looking, hungry for scientific knowledge. Yet on these matters we seem to glory in our ignorance. Of course we can’t say for certain what goes on with near-death visions, apparitions, telepathic experiences, and all the rest. But after decades of serious research we do know something about these things. So it’s odd that media commentators, and the sceptics they invite onto their shows, seem mostly unaware of the work done by scientific researchers.
I wrote Randi’s Prize with the idea of informing an agnostic audience about this work and explaining the arguments. Against the odds I hoped the book might perhaps reach some opinion-makers in the media. But I knew from my own experience that you don’t gain full understanding about anything from reading a single book – you have to study it in depth in order to master it. So I planned also to create a companion website where readers could follow up some of the discussions with more information, and perhaps read some of the original reports.
Alas, that turned out to be beyond my capabilities. I did actually set up the site and uploaded some links and material. But then I got behind with my professional work, so I had to abandon it (the little content I put together is here on the right).
Then last year two rather interesting things happened. The first started when a reader sent me a link to a site called Guerrilla Skepticism, a group of hyper-sceptics who edit Wikipedia, ostensible to improve the profiles of sceptic spokespeople and give them more prominence. But as we know, a lot of this ‘improving’ is also targeted at pages about paranormal experiences and psi-research, to the extent that they are mostly now misleading, if not barbarously offensive.
I wrote about this and it led to a bit of discussion. One view was that any attempt to tangle with hostile editors on Wikipedia was pointless. It’s far too difficult, and anyway, sensible people don’t bother with Wikipedia because they know how unreliable it is.
I don’t agree with the last part. I use Wikipedia all the time for my journalistic work, and have found it invaluable for getting a basic understanding of country politics and economics, for instance. It won’t necessarily occur to most people that there are problems with the pages on scientific issues like psi, unless they come with some prior knowledge. So they will assume that the sceptical comment is more informed than it actually is.
Another view was that something should be done about it. At this time Rupert Sheldrake was in fighting mood, having just been caught up in the controversy over his TED talk, and announced his intention to take up the challenge on Wikipedia. We talked about this together, and I had some notion of trying to clean up some of the parapsychology pages. But then sceptics made the first move by attacking Rupert’s own Wikipedia page, where they deleted anything about his scientific standing and credentials, and did whatever they could to weaken the credibility of his research.
A battle ensued over the summer months, in which editors sympathetic to Rupert Sheldrake and his work would try to revert the hostile edits, only to have their changes instantly undone. The justification was always that Wikipedia should never give undue prominence to ‘fringe’ beliefs. Since many of the site’s supposedly neutral arbitrators, and its founder Jimmy Wales, are themselves unsympathetic, it was difficult to make headway. A Sheldrake sympathiser who seemed to be winning the argument would simply be banned for allegedly having broken some rule or other. (Craig Weiler has graphically described all this in his book Psi Wars.)
It was dispiriting to watch, but I had enormous admiration for the people who patiently keep up the fight in the face of thuggish provocation. It’s thanks to them that Sheldrake’s and a few other pages maintain some semblance of balance. Frankly that sort of thing is beyond me. It’s possible that in the long run that the way Wikipedia is run will change, allowing serious psi-research to be fairly represented. But I can’t see that happening soon, and every day that goes by quite possibly hundreds more people around the world are effectively absorbing falsehoods about the true nature of psi experiences.
There was also some talk of creating a rival resource to Wikipedia. That would have been my preference, but having already tried and failed to do something of the kind on my own I knew what a huge undertaking it would be.
That brings me to the second curious event of last year. In February I learned that I had been appointed to the governing council of the Society for Psychical Research, which has an office and library in Kensington in central London. I’ve been a member for years, and occasionally give lectures and write book reviews for its journal, but hadn’t had much involvement with its affairs. So it was a surprise to discover, when I attended my first meeting, that a substantial bequest had been donated by a deceased member for the purpose of publicising psi-research, and that after years of keen expectation the money was now sitting in the bank waiting to be disbursed.
The legacy came from Nigel Buckmaster, who had experienced a powerful mystical vision following the death of his mother in 1966; the following day he learned that his sister had experienced the same thing, in which she also received a communication that was meaningful to them both. Buckmaster contacted the SPR, who got someone to write it up (I posted the report here a couple of weeks ago.) He also started to study the literature of psi-research, and felt – exactly as I did, when I first started reading it – that it deserved to be better known. So he decided to will the proceeds of his house to the SPR for the purpose of publishing a book that would analyse some of the best cases of psi and survival.
In the years preceding his decease the idea was developed into a scheme to create a powerful online database of such cases. The aim was to help integrate psi-research into that general area of mainstream science that addresses anomalies in all kinds of fields. But at the February meeting disagreements emerged about the costs involved, and shortly afterwards the project was abandoned.
The council then returned to the idea of publishing a book, as Buckmaster originally envisaged. But there are already many books on survival phenomena, and a single book would hardly do justice the size of the bequest. So it was eventually decided, among other things, to expand Buckmaster’s original concept and create a free online encyclopedia of psi-research. Earlier this year I applied for the job of editing it and was accepted.
Thinking about it now, I realise it might after all have been possible to create something of the kind on a purely voluntary basis. It’s a question of going to researchers and writers and asking them to contribute an article on their subject of expertise. Given the Wikipedia problem everyone sees the urgency of that, and naturally the idea has occurred to other people. There are plans to add parapsychology content to Citizendium (a baby rival to Wikipedia which presumably will grow up to be better behaved), and also to Wikiversity, although it’s unclear whether that will escape the attention of hostile editors.
Perhaps more significant at present is the WISE project conceived by John Reed and backed by the Society for Scientific Exploration (WISE stands for World Institute for Scientific Exploration). This is a giant wiki-database that will see thousands of entries loaded for journals, subjects and individuals who have figured in parapsychology, psychical research, survival research, Spiritualism, ufology, alternative medicine, and related fields. It’s open to anyone to submit content, but I gather most of the effort is being directed at collecting existing material from books and journals.
The SPR resource will be smaller, with perhaps up to 1000 entries over the course of three to four years, compared with the 4000 that WISE already plans. It will also be more narrowly focused on psi-related subjects. But a lot of this material will be newly-created in-depth summaries of the main topics and case studies of key investigations and experiments, linked directly where possible to the original reports. Being funded means we have control over the way the material is shaped and presented. Hopefully we can generate enough content to launch within a year, and carry on adding new items in the following two to three years.
As far as editing and uploading material goes, clearly neither project can provide open access as Wikipedia does. In our case, articles will be vetted and improved by a fairly tight forum of active editors, and by experts in the topic.
Naturally the question arises of why there should be more than one resource of the kind. If we want to create something that rivals Wikipedia as a source that Internet users go to for information on psi-related topics, isn’t it better to cooperate rather than compete?
I’ve discussed this with WISE and we both see serious practical difficulties in joining forces, however. Certainly we won’t duplicate our efforts, but trying to combine two projects that have a very different ethos and starting points will cause delays and confusions. My own view is that having two or more alternative sources to Wikipedia could be as good as having just one, as long as readers don’t find exactly the same material on each. That said, we plan to keep an open mind about this.
These are early days, and I’m busy laying the groundwork and recruiting writers. There are many people out there whose work I admire and who I plan to contact over the coming weeks with a view to writing an article or two. (If you’re a writer or researcher with expert knowledge on a topic, and you’d like to contribute, then please get in touch with me at the address at the top of the page.)
For me personally, this is the realisation of a long-held ambition. It’s not just psi phenomena that interest me, it’s the extraordinary fact that although they’re so widely experienced – as attested in an ever-growing cascade of books and articles – they aren’t publicly acknowledged. Our society is schizoid about it, which fascinates me. I have some ideas about why it is, and I’ll have a shot at discussing them in my next book.
But if we think, as I do, that the balance is wrong, and that we can’t go on forever pretending these things are spurious, then something has to change. And that ‘something’ is surely the state of public understanding about psi research – if it’s ever to improve there must be easily accessible sources of unbiased information. I know many people believe it’s actually scientists that need to be convinced, which is true as well. But scientists too are members of the public and on this topic probably get as much of their information from Wikipedia as everyone else.
Every conversation I have about this, every radio interview discussion, every confrontation with a sceptic, quickly comes back to that one central point: the invisibility of serious psi research to the general public. As things stand, the rhetorical question, ‘But where’s the evidence?’ leaves me stumped. Oddly, it has be answered in a geographical sense. Knowledge normally resides in scientific texts and journals that can be accessed in universities and educational libraries, but because of the taboo that’s not often the case here. So where does it reside? You can join a research society like the SPR to gain access to it, but there’s a subscription fee to consider. Probably the best place to find it is in books that can be acquired from Amazon. But that’s a barrier too: most people don’t buy books to answer a casual inquiry, only to follow up something they have developed a real interest in.
That’s why a dedicated free encyclopedia of parapsychology could make a difference. Almost all of us visit Wikipedia at some time to satisfy queries – it’s the sixth most visited website and has created a certain expectation. The Google-keyword-click-Wikipedia-click routine has become a reflex, and we can exploit that newly created habit to our advantage. The channel of misinformation that Internet users are now exposed to can be diverted to a much cleaner, clearer source - detailed and unbiased articles and case studies that require minimal investment of time and none of money to read.
It won’t happen straight away, and Wikipedia is likely to retain its dominance at the top of the search results for a while yet. But these new resources will start to make inroads: over time their presence will raise the level of the public debate. For one thing, I expect to start seeing much more detailed references to the psi-research literature in articles by mainstream journalists. For many it will be a revelation. They will learn for the first time that these phenomena are not only much more widely experienced than they realised but have been extensively studied by highly credentialled scientific researchers, also that these researchers on the whole believe they can’t easily be explained by materialist science as it stands and – contrary to the story told on Wikipedia – have good arguments.
In the longer term, debunking sceptics – and the sceptical movement generally – will have to raise their game. On radio and TV, the chortling dismissals, hand waving and harrumphing won’t work as long as the interviewer can douse them with facts quickly downloaded from a reputable source. Nor will sceptics be able to rely on smug generalisations and references to a few high profile debunkings and fraudulent cases if they find themselves being instantly challenged with much stronger cases. To be effective they’re going to have to get to know something about the subject – and what a refreshing change that will be.
Beyond that, it seems natural to me that people who experience paranormal phenomena – at a relative’s deathbed, a child talking of a previous life, an apparition - should be able quickly to discover what is known about it. Yes, they can poke around on Amazon and find a book to buy, and of course there are some quite good Internet resources on topics like NDEs and past life memories. But my guess is that many don’t look – the experience just sits somewhere in the back of their mind as a curiosity, something they daren’t speak about for fear of being ridiculed and have to try to make sense of on their own (writers like Patricia Pearson and Penny Sartori who seek out experiencers hear this over and over.) It will be satisfying to know that one day soon this need can be quickly and comprehensively satisfied.