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Hallowe’en news from Flat Earth

Posted on 07 November 2012, 19:10

Hallowe’en has come round again, and it’s time for another silly story about ghosts, spirits, parapsychology and all that gives media hacks their chance to display their ignorance, prejudices and stock of sarcastic comments on anything generally termed ‘psychic’. This year’s silly story came from Goldsmith’s College, University of London where Professor Chris French, head of its ‘Anomalistic psychology unit’ carried out an experiment duly reported on 31 October – right on cue - by Sean Coughlan, BBC News education correspondent under the triumphant headline ‘Psychic Pair Fail Scientific Test’. According to him, ‘a scientific experiment has found that two mediums were unable to demonstrate that they had special psychic powers.’

The fact that almost identical pieces appeared on the same day in the Daily Mail, Guardian, Times, Huffington Post and numerous web sites including one as far away as Zimbabwe suggests that this was yet another example of how news is managed nowadays – the Press Association sends out a release which gets copied with minimal alteration apart from the byline, no research into the history of the subject in question, and no presentation of alternative points of view other than one of the mediums involved, Patricia Putt, who correctly pointed out that ‘this didn’t prove a thing’, except, I might add, that it was yet another example of an experiment that seemed to have been designed to fail.

One way to make failure more than likely is to ask mediums to do what they do not normally do, in this case ‘deduce something about people they had never met and could not see or hear’. Sitters were hidden by a screen and were instructed to say nothing, which as Patricia Putt pointed out was not the way she was accustomed to working. It was as if a violinist was asked to perform on a euphonium, despite never having played one before. Not surprisingly only one of the five ‘blind sitters’ considered their reading a success, though it was quite surprising that any of them was successful given the unfamiliar conditions.

No sign of any attempt at balance here. Not a squeak about the vast amount of well-documented evidence from the likes of Leonora Piper, Gladys Osborne Leonard, Indridi Indridason and too many more to mention here. As so often before, a single unsuccessful ‘experiment’ is taken to suggest that the whole subject has been definitively debunked.
As Michael Marshall, vice president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society and co-organiser of this non-event crowed patronisingly that ‘I’d urge anyone who is thinking of visiting a medium to think twice and to question whether their money might be better spent elsewhere’. He did however graciously concede that the experiment ‘doesn’t disprove psi ability’, although it was generally reported as if it had.

I would urge anyone planning to discover evidence for successful mediumship to do a bit of homework, study apparently successful mediums in the field rather than in the lab and follow up cases in which sitters reckoned they had been given good evidence instead of expecting mediums to perform on demand in unfamiliar conditions. As Professor James Lett pointed out in his A Field Guide to Critical Thinking (1990), ‘The evidence in support of any claim must be exhaustive. All of the available evidence must be considered.’

The wide and immediate publicity given to this ‘scientific experiment’ was quite a contrast to the reception by the media of a press release I helped prepare in 2010 to publicise my colleague Barrie Colvin’s peer-reviewed article in the April issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research on ‘The acoustical properties of unexplained rapping sounds’ recorded on poltergeist cases (two of them by me). We reckoned that we had obtained instrumentally recorded evidence for anomalous percussive sounds that we were unable to replicate.

We sent it to about 35 media outlets, only two of which even mentioned it. They happen to have been the only two where I had a sympathetic personal contact. There is plenty of positive evidence for all kinds of psi phenomena, but the media make sure the public never gets to hear about it. Negative evidence, on the other hand, gets immediate headlines.

A final thought. Was the fact that just two mediums had failed to prove that they had ‘special powers’ in a single experiment really news worth sending around the world? If Wayne Rooney fails to score a goal is it immediately concluded that he is a complete failure? And what about those highly paid goalkeepers who regularly fail at their job? So why bother to carry out this meaningless exercise, and give it so much publicity? Prof. Lett again:

‘If you are willing to be selective in the evidence you consider, you could reasonably conclude that the earth is flat.’

Which is a good analogy for what French and Marshall clearly set out to do.

Guy Lyon Playfair’s books include:
If This Be Magic: The Forgotten Power of Hypnosis
The Flying Cow: Exploring the Psychic World of Brazil
This House is Haunted
Twin Telepathy



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About Guy Lyon Playfair

Posted on 04 November 2012, 23:41

Guy Lyon Playfair spent many years in Brazil as a freelance journalist for The Economist, Time, and the Associated Press, also working for four years in the press section of the US Agency for International Development.

The first of his 12 books, The Flying Cow, in which he described his experiences investigating the psychic side of Brazil, was translated into six languages and became an international bestseller. His most recent book is Twin Telepathy. He lives in London and is a council member of the Society for Psychical Research.

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When Skeptics Attack: Skeptical Organizations and Websites by Craig Weiler – If you really want to get to the heart of skepticism, the best way to do that is to look at the organizations that skeptics create and see how they operate. The behavior of these organizations is the behavior of the individuals, writ large. There are two national organizations worth considering: the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). Read here
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