Talking With Jenny Cockell

Online Encyclopedia Update

The reason I haven’t posted until recently is that I’ve been busy getting the SPR’s online encyclopedia going – as I’m sure regular readers understand. At least that’s the story I’ve been telling myself.

The truth is that I did manage to find pockets of time for writing blog posts, but nothing came out. I’d sit down, wanting to share some dazzling insight, and ... zilch. Couldn’t get my thoughts together. It was like being fifteen again, sucking my pen and trying to write an essay. Made me realise how much I take this writing thing for granted.

In the meantime a few people have suggested I do an update on progress with the encyclopedia. That’s something I can do, as it’s what I spend most of my time thinking about these days. So here goes.

To date I’ve commissioned about forty articles, of which half are completed. They’re in no particular order – topics are as various as Children’s Memories of a Past Life, Twin Telepathy, Photography in Psi Research, Meditation and Psi, Leonora Piper, the Million Dollar Challenge, the Enfield Poltergeist, etc. Everything will get covered eventually.

I originally planned for articles to be about 2000 words, 3000 tops. But then I thought, if we’re going to do this properly we can’t be superficial, we have to try to give readers an in-depth view. So several articles – mainly big topics like Children’s Memories, Ghosts and Apparitions and Leonora Piper – come out at around 5000 words, which I reckon gets about the right balance between comprehensiveness and online readability. It means fiddling with the budget, but I think it was the right decision.

After a lot of humming and harring I opted to follow the Wikipedia format, with intro, list of contents, and then various aspects treated under separate headings. It’s not that I think we should mindlessly imitate our main rival, far from it – I’m all for coming up with creative new approaches. But there are at least two good reasons for following Wikipedia’s example. One is that the format is tried and tested in an online context. Text needs to be broken up to be readable, particularly with longer articles. The other is it’s what readers expect. We mustn’t put barriers in the way, like obliging them to become familiar with a different format.

Some articles have required very little editing. Others need reworking, and that’s keeping me busy. In general, I’m determined to ensure that articles are clear and easy to read. I’m also including extra material where I think it’s needed. By the year’s end I hope to have around fifty articles ready to go to an editing forum where suggestions for improvements and insertions can be made. That should expand to about eighty by Easter, and double that by the end of next year.

The subject articles are just one element. There will also be around two hundred case studies, accessible summaries of key episodes in the literature of psychical research. Where possible I’ll include the original reports, something I think will be especially useful with older poltergeist cases, where witness testimony is most convincing in its original form. That’s not possible with NDE and past life memories research, for copyright reasons, but I’ve drafted summaries of some of Ian Stevenson’s cases, which I think works pretty well, so there will be more of those. Apart from that, I haven’t made much progress with case studies, partly as I have yet to find the right kind of writers. But I’m going to start focusing on this more.

Then of course there will be short biographies of deceased researchers and subjects (although the more significant will of course be described in much longer articles, such as Frederic Myers and Leonora Piper). I daresay we shall include brief biogs of living researchers, which I shall encourage them to provide. There will also be short reviews of key books – eventually perhaps two hundred in number – which will consist of a paragraph of description followed by a paragraph of comment.

As I say, I’m keen to include quite a bit of early archive material. (Ideally there’d be some of the later stuff as well, but there are likely to be copyright issues, and there is at least some good material online already, which of course we will link to.) It’s one thing to read a second hand summary of research relating to, say, Leonora Piper, but quite another to hear Oliver Lodge and Richard Hodgson lay out their reasoning in detail, then to follow up by reading verbatim reports of sittings.

This is not at all straightforward, however. PDF scans exist and can be made available. But if we want to encourage casual readers to dip into them – and we do - we need to reformat them in an accessible modern format. Again, files of automatic transfers to digital text already exist, but they are corrupted – quite badly in some places – by errors such as where the computer has read an ‘s’ as an ‘8’ or an ‘i’ as a ‘1’ or even ‘!’. It’s laborious work to correct, but it will be worth it.

Something I hadn’t originally planned, but have been becoming quite interested in, is the idea of lists. For instance I think we should have a ‘dictionary’ that lists items alphabetically with just a line or two or description and an appropriate link. That’s something I’ve started on, and it’s fun to do. I’m particularly pleased with an article one contributor has given me that lists eminent people – scientists, philosophers, politicians, authors, artists and writers, etc – who took the idea of psychic phenomena seriously. There are as many as two hundred of them. Reading through the list would surely make all but committed sceptics start to wonder why on earth the subject attracts so little mainstream interest.

I’ve also started to create a list of past life memories cases, each with a single paragraph summary, which I expect to get up to about a hundred. Ditto poltergeists. The point here is to give people a sense of the scale of these occurrences. It’s easy enough to dismiss one or two bizarre stories, but when you see how widely reported such things are it forces you to think about it differently.

So when will all this see the light of day? I’ve set a tentative launch date of Easter, by which time I reckon I should have around eighty substantial articles, and perhaps a similar number of case studies, with a bit of other stuff to fill it out. That’s a fraction of the eventual total, which I reckon will reach around 800-1000 items, although that may take three or four years to reach. There are arguments for waiting until we have a more substantial amount of material. On the other hand, there’s a certain urgency to do something about the Wikipedia problem, which is turning people off the subject in large numbers, so we don’t want to hang around.

Also, I think it’s important to put the project on the map, so to speak. There’s bound to be a certain amount of scepticism about our level of commitment, and our ability to produce something that will make a difference. Showing we mean business will help build momentum in all sorts of ways.

That said, an Easter launch is not very likely. I still have to set up the editing forum, and it would be surprising if new challenges and complexities did not start emerging at that point. It’s in the nature of things that people have radically different views, so there are likely to be some quite candid discussions about the way subjects are being presented, whether we’re taking a strong enough, or too strong a line with sceptics, and so on. The SPR historically is quite relaxed about members presenting opposing viewpoints, but this is a rather new kind of endeavour, and we may find ourselves in uncharted territory.

Other questions remain to be decided. Oddly, perhaps, we have not yet fixed on a name. Various suggestions have been made, generally around the word ‘psi’ – Psicopedia, Psiclopedia, Psipedia, and so forth – which may seem obvious but which I’ve come to think won’t work , as ‘psi’ is not a recognised term outside our field (unlike ESP). At worst it will cause confusion. That would be fatal. Most people will come to the resource via Google, and they won’t spend more than a couple of seconds deciding which link to click. My own preference is to use the word ‘encyclopedia’, which I think is a value-word that people trust. But I’m in no rush about this, because it’s a crucial decision and needs to be got right.

There are also important questions to be decided about the delivery platform. As it happens, key people who have been involved with setting up and running the SPR’s website are leaving, so we are having to recruit new experts to advise us on this. This is not just about the encyclopedia; there is also work to be done redesigning the website, and turning it into a hub for comment and dialogue, as well as the events and administrative stuff.

So even if I get sufficient material ready at an early stage, the launch date will be determined by the progress we make in other areas. But I’d ideally like to see it up and running in the first half of next year, and would be disappointed it got pushed back much further.

I’m off now to the SPR’s annual conference, which this year is being held in York. (Anyone who’s interested might like to see my short vid about last year’s conference in Swansea.) I shall be giving a talk titled ‘The Wikipedia Problem’, which I think is self-explanatory.

However, as I shall say there, I think we could also view this as The Wikipedia Opportunity. Why? For one, it’s taken the lunatic pseudosceptic editing on Wikipedia to finally get the psi-research community off its backside and start pushing back.

But the real opportunity lies in this strange new habit that millions of people around the globe have adopted. Like lab rats trained to press a lever, they have learned that the Google-click-Wikipedia-click reflex satisfies a sudden craving for information. If we’re smart enough to manipulate that reflex, we can divert many of those casual readers to a different destination, one where they can learn true facts about psi-research.

Over time that could have quite an impact. What the SPR – and several other individuals and organisations too, I should acknowledge – are doing here will help to change the way that psi-research is perceived, by the public, the media, and perhaps eventually even by mainstream scientists themselves.


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Is the encyclopedia going to cover topics of parapsychology such as Ganzfeld experiments, remote viewing, presentiment, etc?

Yes indeed, there will be loads on the experimental stuff. But I haven't commissioned any yet, as I need to work with parapsychologists, and that's taking a bit of time to get sorted.

kudos to you and your team robert. looking forward to this.

somehow i think the term 'wiki' may be useful in the title. para wiki ? wiki-woo ;)
though maybe moving away from that is the key.

i agree that the name of the thing is of utmost importance. it's all about branding, as they say.

one can argue that public perception of psi is a marketing issue. it's either bad typography over glowing eyes peering through mist, incredibly dry academic work only meant for insiders or oprah-level wellness pablum.

how to be populist but not dumbed down, how to be serious but not aloof.

i like the vibe of things like edgescience, reality sandwich, your blog here and other sites that stress science and research with a holistic bent.

onwards !

May as well satirized the Randi-ites and call it Wiki woo-woo.

Fantastic work, Robert. We all owe you a debt of gratitude.

Don't use "wiki" in the name. That's like "Don't Think of an Elephant". Here's a couple of suggestions:

1) The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research.
2) this is marketable: WooWooPedia.

It sounds as though it's shaping up well, Rob. I hope there'll be enough room to cover current (sensible) field research i.e. that conducted by the likes of Steve Parsons. That would cover the second part of Ben's first suggestion.

Is Infrasound covered ? I could help out there if it isn't

I would hope so (eventually), Steve. If it's not, then it needs to be, and I can't think of a better person to be involved with that subject than your self. Aren't you at the conference?

Got grounded Steve by Mrs P's work commitment

Robert, this is exciting! It's really happening! The thought that there is soon going to be a real alternative to Wikipedia for information that so many of us find essential to our well-being, has made my day.

I've been wondering why you haven't been blogging, and there couldn't be a better reason than your involvement with this project.

Hear, hear, Bruce!

I eagerly anticipate the day this project goes online! With all the work that Robert describes going into it, I don't see how it can fail. An internet accessible go-to place for balanced displays of information and research into the paranormal that drills through the current cacophony of personality driven noise is sorely needed in this day and age.
The fact that it is being compiled and edited with journalistic professionalism clinches the deal, as far as I'm concerned.

But it's going to need a press savvy unveiling, and a continued media friendly underpinning to gain widespread appeal.
I don't expect the militant atheist and religious fundamentalist crowds to be impressed, in fact, the level of their ire can be one of the measures of the website's success. A backlash should not only be anticipated, but welcomed. It creates interest.
How this project deals with other media will be critical, although I wouldn't walk on eggshells fretting about it. Some folks will "get it", some folks won't, but at the end of the day the quality of content will be the final arbiter of credibility.

With data-backed articles written in a journalistic style that makes them understandable and interesting to the general public, and proper interaction with the press, this could be a a serious game changer.

I can't wait. :-)

Well done, Robert! I think you've found your true vacation in this project. What about 'Parawicki'? :)

Ps. Or even 'Parawiki'. (Spelling never was my greatest strength.) ;)

This sounds like a great resource Rob. Who will it be made available to and on what basis?

I used to be a member of the SPR but found it very London-centric and its publications as dry as dust. This type of resource might rekindle my interest :)

Paul, interesting comment. The Paranormal Review has a new editor, and has already been gingered up a bit. Next year we plan to start publishing on the SPR website, which hopefully will also be of interest.

The resource will be a free online Encyclopedia, available to all.

My 'true vacation'? I dream of rum cocktails on beaches in the Caribbean :)

Parawicki might be good, if we're thinking along those lines. But we only have one shot at convincing people on Google to pick us rather than Wikipedia, so we have to be clear about what we're offering. So I favour calling it The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. It may not be particularly clever or elegant, but that wouldn't help us here - what's needed is clarity.

Even so, a catchy name travels faster than clarity - surely? Even Wiki gained prominence by its catchy name. (Only trying to help.) :)

Ps. Rum can give one an awful headache. ;)

Unfortunately, the term 'paranormal' has become stigmatised by popular usage, so that in practice it now means, colloquially, the same as ‘supernatural’ and is often used in a pejorative sense. So, in the public mind the word is used as a catch all for any phenomenon with an edge of ‘spookiness’ to it. Skeptics have exploited this very successfully. So I believe that the word should be kept away from the title of the resource, although there should be a page devoted to explaining the origins and real meaning of the term.

The term ‘parapsychology’ has been affected in the same way, but to a more limited extent, because it remains a fact that parapsychology is an academic discipline at quite a few universities. So, I’d go with Rob’s suggestion on this one.

Maybe it should go without saying, but I hope this web-based paranormal encyclopedia sticks to the traditional SPR subjects of study - psi and spirit.

Personally I think that there is definitely something very real (likely spiritual, not physical) about alien abductions and UFO's. In my opinion, the Shroud of Turin mystery has yet to be settled. I don't buy into Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or shadow people. Other followers of this blog may have opposing opinions about these objects of study, but then, that's my point.
When you spread the net too wide you muddy the water.

Most of my favorite blog authors have quirky interests that I find slightly distracting, but unlike an encyclopedia, a blog by definition is a personal endeavor. The author owns it.
Alex Tskiris isn't shy about his opinion that 9-11 was an inside job. (he makes a good case)
Craig Weiler recently flirted with the anti-vaccine crowd. (The evidence he presented really does make it look like there's a cover-up)
Michael Prescott doesn't think Shakespeare wrote his plays. (I'm convinced he's right)
But then again, these are personal diaries, and even though I have learned a massive amount of good information from them, they are not intended to be publicly available prime research forums for students writing term papers.

Huh. Come to think of it Robert, you're the only "normal" one out there. :D

But back to my point, restrictions have to be made on the subjects and personalities covered. The credibility of evidence and counter arguments has to be vetted. I'll bet this will turn out to be the most difficult part of the job, as opinions, experiences and ego's abound all over the map.
My hope lies in the fact that the SPR has set the standard for sober assessment of the paranormal for over 130 years now, so I believe the project is in good hands.

My only other concern is that I'm so eager to start reading it, I can hardly wait. I kinda feel like a silicon valley meditator, "C'mon inner peace, I haven't got all day!" :D

Hey Dawg, all good comments. Yes, we are focusing on our core competencies, as business folk say. More psi than 'spirit', probably, although obviously there will be a lot on survival questions. There are other big projects afoot that are covering a much wider range of subjects, so that market will be catered for.

'the only "normal" one out there' - not that normal, I just keep my quirks to myself :)

If it conforms to the SPR mission statement, then all of the issues will be viewed 'Without Predjudice'. That is what the main difference will be between this resource and Wikipedia. In my experience that approach will offend some believers and (most) skeptics alike. If you want an example of the former, then just consider the fact that many of the early Spiritualist membership (e.g. Stainton Moses and Conan Doyle) took themselves off in a huff because they thought (unfairly, in my view) that the SPR was treating the phenomena of mediumship too sceptically.

With the latter, I've always found it rather ironic that most skeptics will bang on about the skeptical ouvre as if they thought of it all themselves (theories re cold reading etc. etc.). In actual fact, a great deal of it came from the early (and later) SPR researchers who, either originated such concepts themselves, or took onboard critical observations from outside, but actually tested the theory. Unfortunately the 'Without Predjudice' aspect caused trouble there too.

Frank Podmore of the SPR forgot the 'Without Predjudice' part in his overview of William Stainton Moses:;view=1up;seq=89

I think you may be correct there, Ben. Although, I have to admit that my memory of what Podmore said about Moses is rather sketchy, I do know that he was incredibly scathing about physical mediumship in general, as were others - Hodgson in particular.

However, that has to be balanced against the fact that, with that particular subject, there was an elephant in the room that most of its adherents (especially the Spiritualist ones) were rather reluctant to acknowledge i.e. a rather dense smog of flakeyness and, often, outright fraud, that could make it rather difficult to see the wood for the trees.

Moses' phenomena, in the main, if my memory serves me correctly, only sat with a few people and he also had his own doubts about the nature of ostensible spirit communication himself, that are a pretty dominant feature of his 'Spirit Teachings'. Podmore's take on the phenomena of Mesmerism, Hypnotism (in particular, self-suggestion) were pretty lucid, in my view. So his 'prejudices', such as they were, were at least well informed and, for the most part, well thought through.

Really, 'Without Prejudice' is a lofty ideal as far as actual 'research' is concerned, and that is something that can be difficult to achieve for any human being. That has to be acknowledged. As far as the online resource goes, however, it amounts to including all of the evidence (pro and con) , and not deliberately leaving out pertinent facts that do not foster one's own romantic attachment to a particular world-view.

I just came across the following quote and thought it most apt:

"Nothing can contribute more to peace of soul than the lack of any opinion whatever." - Georg C. Lichtenberg

That aside, I could write an essay about this subject. But don't worry, I'm not about to do that here. ;)

Those who have experienced psychic phenomena firsthand will become, and remain, open minded about the subject. Those who lack such experience will not be persuaded whatever the evidence - unless, that is, an experiment can be designed that will allow any and all participants to have such experience on demand.

And anyway, with regard to the survival issue, if those on the 'other side' are keen to have more earthlings understand the truth (assuming survival is the truth) isn't it about time they upped their game and haunted a few of the Randis and Dawkins of this world?

As one of the hexagrams in the I-Ching says: 'There are more forces than you involved in this situation. Get out of their way', or words to that effect. I often wonder if all this argument and side-taking causes more resistance than illumination. :)

Ps. I do accept that some people are inclined towards acceptance of psi despite not having had an experience of their. But I suspect that, generally, they have had a familial or sympathetic introduction to the subject.

Whatever. I still look forward to Robert's online encyclopedia. :)


Modern physicists have gotten away with convincing the entire scientific community and general public that quantum mechanics and relativity are real, despite their insults to our intuitive view of reality, based on the authority of the physicists' experiments and credentials. The same thing can happen with psi. But as long as the militant skeptical movement keeps falsely saying that the majority of scientists reject psi and attack any scientist who goes public with their beliefs, progress will be very hard. So I really think putting a counter-narrative out their is important.

As for haunting militant skeptics, I'm certain they will believe they are going insane rather than believe the evidence before their eyes. If survival of consciousness is real and they pass away, I don't even think being a ghost would change their minds. The pride of a closed mind is very strong indeed.

"As for haunting militant skeptics, I'm certain they will believe they are going insane rather than believe the evidence before their eyes."

Well, that might be a start. ;)

But it really doesn't matter what tricks the militant skeptics get up to. Engaging with them simply maintains closed minded divisions. It's one thing to argue such matters at a personal level, but once sides are entrenched across the intellectual spectrum then no side is going to back down. That's how wars escalate.

Members of the general public will make up their own minds - they always have and always will, regardless of academic opinion.

In related news, Craig Weiler reports :

"As of today, the Integrative Studies Historical Archive and Repository, ISHAR, is launching its crowdfunding campaign on Indigogo. ... The goal of this on line library is to provide one stop shopping for researchers, universities, doctors, journalists, libraries and uh, online encyclopedias (ok, Wikipedia.) for Mind/Body research."

I suspect the psi battle is a game that both sides enjoy - at least at the fundamentalist level. For that reason I doubt the war will end any time soon. It would be akin to eradicating football.

Hi Julie,

The psi wars are not fun for scientists. We just want to be left to research in peace and keep debates confined to the scientific community without outside activists getting involved, like in (almost) every other field.

(My lab:
There are currently 3 Ph.D. researchers working at this new presentiment lab.)

They're certainly not fun for the scientists, like you, who are pioneering this research. But even scientists have been known to lose touch with their intellectual integrity when faced with phenomena that suggest they've spent their entire academic career digging a hole in the wrong place.

Here's a source providing a vastly different view of the early work from the current amniadversions:;view=2up;seq=6;skin=mobile

I think Wikipedia should be named Wishfulthinkingpedia.

Off topic, but have you been to That website annoys me. Some people in the comments section insult 'believers' and some are just plain childish.

The behaviours that you mention are common enough on skeptical forums. I'm sure that most here are familiar with them. Very odd indeed. The thing that surprises me the most is that the skeptics who indulge in that style of online discourse are so completely unselfconscious about it. I've even come across people who are like that in person.

To be fair, I've also met skeptics (including leading ones) who express embarrasment at that sort of behaviour. Although I'd have to add that I can't recall many examples, off the top of my head, of skeptics openly questioning that aspect of the movement publicly. Hayely Stevens is a notable exception to that.

@Steve: Meant to add that when I suggested 'Parawiki' I meant 'para' as in 'alongside of'.

But perhaps it gives wikipedia a plug it doesn't deserve. :)

Anticipate a negative review of the encyclopedia in the skeptical inquirer or some such organ. Think of strategies for dealing with that.

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