The Society for Psychical Research Tackles Internet Encyclopedia Project
Posted on 17 November 2014, 11:09
I recently interviewed Robert McLuhan (below) for the December issue of “The Searchlight,” a publication of The Academy for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies. Below is a slightly abbreviated version of that interview.
In his popular 2010 book, Randi’s Prize, Robert McLuhan, a British freelance journalist, discusses, as the subtitle of the book states, “what sceptics say about the paranormal, why they are wrong and why it matters.”
McLuhan begins the book as a “skeptic,” or “sceptic” (we’ll use the King’s English here) – an open-minded one – wondering why the million-dollar prize offered by James “The Amazing” Randi, an American stage magician, to anyone who can demonstrate psychic powers to his satisfaction has not yet been claimed. McLuhan examines some of the best evidence offered by psychical researchers and parapsychologists favoring both psi and survival of the consciousness at death, then looks at the counter-arguments offered by the sceptics. He carefully weighs the evidence for and against and in most cases concludes that the sceptics have ignored, twisted, distorted, misinterpreted, misrepresented, disregarded, ridiculed, or otherwise dismissed the best evidence.
A 1974 graduate of the University of Oxford, where he gained a First in English Literature, McLuhan has worked as foreign correspondent for The Guardian in Spain and Portugal, and now works as a writer for news and business magazines. He has been a member of the prestigious Society for Psychical Research (SPR) since 1993 and recently accepted the position of Commissioning Editor for a projected Internet Encyclopedia, which will provide objective biographies of researchers, psychics, mediums, and others who have made significant contributions to psychical research and parapsychology.
I recently put some questions to McLuhan by e-mail.
Robert, what prompted the SPR to undertake this project?
“Hi Michael. I thought we needed a viable alternative to Wikipedia, where psi-related articles have become almost unreadable as a result of editing by sceptics. There’s always been quite a bit of sceptical material on Wikipedia, which is to be expected. But of late it seems to have got completely out of hand. It’s as though someone is looking over your shoulder while you’re reading, telling you, ‘Don’t believe this stuff! It’s not reliable! Pay no attention! Stop reading!’
“Typically, you get a paragraph of more or less objective information, the remnants of the original article, then an insertion tacked on telling you that it’s been debunked. In some articles there’s hardly anything left of the original. If you look at the page on mediumship, for instance, it’s very long – around ten thousand words. But only the first two thousand provide anything like objective information. The rest is a jumble of disbelieving fragments: ‘this medium was caught in fraud by so-and-so, that one confessed, it’s obviously nonsense’. It’s not just that the articles are unbalanced. In the absence of almost any mention of the original research – the work that investigators did, and their reasoning – they’ve become meaningless.”
How has this situation arisen? What can be done about it?
“About 18 months ago someone sent me a link to the Guerrilla Skeptics site. I hadn’t come across it before, and I wrote about it on my blog, Paranormalia. We know that ideological sceptics are very committed to keeping science free of ‘woo’. What few of us grasped was how organised they are behind the scenes. It’s fortunate in a way that Susan Gerbic, who founded Guerrilla Skeptics, is keen to talk about the work she does to ‘improve’ Wikipedia pages on psi topics, training editors in how to work the system. I don’t think she’s the only one doing it, by any means, but she provides useful insights into their methods.
“It involves being very clued up about how Wikipedia works, its rules and regulations. Edits are supposed to be preceded by discussion on the talk pages, and ideally it ought to be possible to come to a consensus. That’s clearly what Wikipedians believe. But it doesn’t work for controversial topics. Psychical research is treated as a marginal or fringe belief. The mere fact that mainstream science rejects it gives hostile editors the right to make whatever edits they like, and revert those they don’t, with the expectation of being supported by the site administrators. It’s enormously difficult to overcome that built-in disadvantage.
“There was a bit of discussion on my blog about what to do. Some people, myself included, thought we ought to try to fight back. Others were convinced that would be a waste of time, and it would make more sense to create our own resource. It turned out they were right. After I’d tried to carry out Wikipedia edits, and watched them being reverted instantly – and seeing other people having the same frustrating experience – I realised the second option is the only way forward, at least in the short term.”
Wikipedia is always the first reference that pops up when a particular subject is researched. Many people will not go beyond that first reference. I don’t know how far down the SPR reference will be, but is there any way to deal with that problem?
“I’ve talked to a few search experts about this. Google has different ways to evaluate websites, and they keep changing. That’s good, because it makes it harder for people to buy their way to the top of the rankings. A site has to be genuinely popular, which I believe ours will be.
“If we go about it in an orderly way I’m pretty confident that the encyclopedia will soon be in the top four or five rankings for searches on paranormal topics, along with other new projects that are about to launch, such as Deepak Chopra’s ISHAR and Rupert Sheldrake’s Open Sciences. There’ll still be a challenge in getting people to click on our link rather than Wikipedia’s. But we’ll be getting good advice in that regard.
“One of the experts I spoke to thought that Wikipedia would drop down the page quite quickly, as it’s apparently not that interested in promoting itself with regard to niche subjects. I don’t know how true that is, but it was encouraging to hear!”
Approximately how many people and subjects will be covered? Will they be primarily historical figures or current people and subjects as well?
“Yes, good questions. We’re doing this in two stages. In the first, we’re getting enough material together to launch early next year, hopefully round about May. That would mean getting around 200 items ready. But we shall go on adding to it for at least another two years, and probably there will be a trickle of new additions on a regular basis after that as well.
“The material is of different kinds: subject articles, biographies, case studies, book reviews, and so on. I plan also to include some of the original literature, reports of investigations of mediums, hauntings, poltergeists, that sort of thing, as well as some of the more recent experimental stuff and the work on past-life memories. I reckon that at the end of three or four years we should have about 200 entries in each type, so about 1000 items in all. In addition, there will be lists of various kinds: researchers and subjects, experiments, investigations, glossary definitions, bibliographies, that sort of thing.
“So it will be a pretty comprehensive. As regards subject articles, in the first instance there’ll be a general overview of each major category. Eventually there’ll be a whole bunch of shorter articles that explore particular aspects. Readers will also be able to link to individual case studies, and hopefully some of them will go on to read the original literature. So it will be pretty well covered.”
Historically, the SPR has remained perched firmly on the fence when it comes to psychic and “spiritual” phenomena, not really taking a stand one way or the other. I understand that this balance is necessary for it to retain its standing as a scientific organization. Based on the conclusions in your book, you clearly lean in the direction of the reality of psi and survival, so I guess the question here is how much of the debunkers’ (I prefer that to “sceptic”) gobbledygook do you have to offer to satisfy the SPR authorities?
“Mike, I think this is misconception of what the SPR is and how it works. It’s collegiate. There’s no authority that directs things and that one has to submit to. I think it’s always been that way: if you look in the old journals you find controversies raging on all sorts of things among SPR researchers themselves.
“It’s certainly true that in the early years especially, there was a tendency to be sceptical about séance mediums, and that although there was much more certainty about mental mediumship, there was no rush to conclude in favour of survival. But this is only to be expected in the context of scientific investigation. Séance mediumship has always been problematic in this regard. And while there’s very good evidence of survival in mental mediumship, there are also counter indications that have to be taken account of. So this is not so much about an organisation choosing to sit on the fence, it’s about a group of researchers, past and present, reflecting different currents of thought, in a way that makes it unrealistic collectively to back a single idea.
“There clearly has to be balance in how we present the material. Sceptics’ arguments need to be reflected fairly and fully. But that’s not about the debunkers, it is about the general scepticism in secular society, which they merely reflect. It shouldn’t be forgotten that a lot of their arguments derived from the findings of psychical researchers themselves.
“This is not about an individual or organisation presenting a particular position. It’s about presenting the research, in all its variety, as fairly as possible. I believe that if we can do this it will become evident that there’s far more depth and detail in the investigative literature than is generally understood, and that it points firmly to the existence of phenomena that science as yet does not recognize.”
How do you think sceptics will react to this?
“I think they’ll be challenged by it. For a long time now they haven’t had to do any real work. They can simply lift bits and bobs from the research literature that support their case, quote them out of context – job done. This will change the game entirely.
“In a certain sense it will give them new opportunities. Very few sceptics actually read the literature. They just read each other’s books. So they know that for instance that Eusapia Palladino was often caught cheating; that Leonora Piper fished for information; that anoxia is an explanation for the near death experience; that ESP experiments are flawed and unreliable, and so on, all that stereotypical stuff. This will greatly expand the possibilities, since they will start finding all kinds of new exposés and sceptical claims that they weren’t aware of, and be able go into more convincing depth.
“However, the problem for them is going to be that the people they need to reach – not their own circle of likeminded sceptics, but the agnostic masses – are going to have access to the same material. Many of these people will start to realise the reality about psychical research, that sceptical approaches do not always, or even often, lead to satisfying explanations.
“It’s inevitable that this will eventually impact on the media, which will make a big difference. Until now sceptics like Richard Wiseman have been able to say pretty much what they like on radio or TV, with the expectation of being taken seriously by programme producers and presenters. The opposition – psychic claimants, mediums, parapsychologists – are at a disadvantage because educated people don’t know about the scientific research that supports their position. But I can imagine situations where the sceptics start getting push-back from journalists who have taken the trouble to educate themselves. This will be an interesting development, to say the least!”
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.
His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I is published by White Crow Books.
Next blog post: December 1