The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth
Posted on 20 September 2016, 10:48
As discussed in my August 22 post, the person in search of historical truth relative to mediums and paranormal phenomena may very well be confused if he or she relies on Internet references. In that post, I offered the example of Leonora Piper, made out to be a “clever charlatan” by Wikipedia even though the four primary researchers who extensively studied her trance mediumship, all representing the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) or American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), were convinced that she was a genuine medium, one relaying messages from the spirit world.
Fortunately, the SPR has now come up with its own encyclopedic entries on mediums and other paranormal phenomena, one offering objective and balanced reporting. It’s called the PSI Encyclopedia and can be found at www.psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk
It is a work in progress, edited by Robert McLuhan, a British freelance journalist and the author of the 2010 book, Randi’s Prize, but it’s off to a good start, including a factual and balanced treatment of Mrs. Piper.
Another good example of the differences in treatment of a medium is the “bio” of Henry Slade. Wikipedia begins by stating that “Henry Slade (1835-1905) was a famous fraudulent medium who lived and practiced in both Europe and North America.” It then goes on to say that “according to Joe Nickell,” he produced his phenomena by a variety of magic tricks. After Nickell, Karen Stollznow is quoted as to how Slade tricked people. It should be noted that Nickell was born in 1944, 39 years after Slade’s death, and Stollznow in 1976, 71 years after his death. One is left to wonder if they witnessed Slade (below) in a past life or perhaps from some celestial perch before being born this time around.
The Wikipedia biographer later calls upon Harry Houdini, the great magician, who said he knew someone to whom Slade confessed he was a fraud. Wow! Houdini knew somebody who had the inside scoop. How evidential is that? What is not said and is drawn from another reference is that Frederick Powell, a fellow magician, told Houdini that he observed a levitation, movement of furniture, dematerialization of an object, and a slate snatched from his grasp by unseen hands, with Slade, and though convinced it had to be trickery of some kind, he could not explain it.
Striking Psychokinetic Phenomena
The SPR biography begins: “Henry Slade was a controversial nineteenth century séance medium who was publicly accused of fraud, but who was also reported to have produced striking psychokinetic phenomena under well-controlled conditions.” Much of the write-up is based on experiments with Slade carried out by astrophysicist Johann Zöllner at the University of Leipzig.
Professor Stephen Braude, who wrote the SPR entry, notes that Zöllner had more than 30 sessions with Slade, occasionally with the aid of prominent colleagues, including Wilhelm Scheibner, professor of mathematics, Wilhelm Weber, professor of physics, and Gustav Fechner, professor of physics and pioneer of the new science of psychophysics. Although Slade was most known for his slate-writing (spirit communication on small chalk boards), Zöllner was more interested in the psychokinetic aspects – moving objects with the mind (or spirits moving the objects?) – and reported various phenomena, including the penetration of matter by matter, apports, involving the disappearance and reappearance of objects, the movement of a filled bookcase at some distance, the tying of knots in untouched endless cords, materialized hands, and an accordion playing with Slade holding just one end of it.
But, according to Wikipedia, Zöllner (below) observed Slade on just “several” occasions, and “Slade failed some of the tests carried out under controlled conditions but still succeeded in fooling Zöllner in ‘several’ other attempts.” My definition of “several” has it at much less than 30 and there is no explanation as to how it was established that Slade “fooled” him. Clearly, the implication is that such phenomena are not real and therefore it had to be a trick, no other explanation possible. So much for objective reporting.
The Wikipedia bio also mentions several other people who claimed that Slade was a trickster, but, as with other mediums, many of these “one-time only” sitters who claim fraud apparently jump to their conclusions by assuming that the phenomenon witnessed is not humanly possible and therefore what they saw had to have been a trick, even if like Powell, they didn’t understand it. Other skeptics explain to them that the deception “might have been” or “could have been” done a certain way, and this reinforces the idea that it was a trick. All these speculations on how the trick “could have been” or “might have been” carried out become part of the historical record associated with the individual medium and are then carried forward by other biased and ignorant historians. Sadly, the testimonies of the fly-by-night observers are seemingly given equal or even more weight than those of the researchers who sat with the medium multiple times under strictly controlled conditions.
As mentioned in the prior post on Leonora Piper, Dr. Richard Hodgson studied her for 18 years, observing her on the average of three times a week for nearly all of those 18 years, while Sir Oliver Lodge, a world-renowned physicist, sat with her 83 times during her first trip to England. Cambridge scholar and SPR co-founder Frederic Myers and Professor James Hyslop also had numerous sittings with her. All four were convinced that she was a genuine medium through whom the spirit world was communicating. Yet, Wikipedia dismisses those four men in a few sentences and gives the preponderance of weight to debunkers who never observed her and just speculated on what took place, or those who just sat with her a time or two and had no clear understanding of the dynamics of mediumship.
While the Wikipedia biographers of mediums clearly embrace the negative reports by the fly-by-nighters, appear to go out of their way to avoid the positive reports, those lending themselves to the reality of mediumship. For example, Frank Podmore, one of the arch-skeptics of the time, claimed to be “profoundly impressed” by Slade. He is not mentioned by Wikipedia relative to Slade, although Wikipedia is quick to quote him with other mediums who did not impress him.
And then there are times when even the best of mediums fail to produce anything. The one-time sitter sees only failure, which translates to fraud. The researchers who studied Mrs. Piper for nearly two decades reported that there were many times when she could not achieve the trance state necessary for phenomena to be produced. Likewise, Slade apparently had days on which nothing happened. It may be that when nothing happened, he tried to make something happen so as to not disappoint the observers; that is, he cheated. Once a cheater, always a cheater, is the emotional conclusion in such a case, not necessarily the rational conclusion.
Then again, so many allegations of cheating seem to have come from observers who have mistaken an ectoplasmic arm or hand, as produced by spirit entities, for the medium’s arm or hand, or have not considered the possibility that the actions of spirits are being construed as cheating by the medium, i.e., whether it is “conscious” fraud or “unconscious” fraud, the latter not really being fraud, per se.
The whole issue of spirits being involved with the phenomena of the mediums presents something of a Catch 22 situation for the researchers and complicates the biographies, at least for those biographers who want to be “scientifically correct.” In effect, they can’t hypothesize spirits because the strong evidence that spirits exist is not accepted by scientists, at least the fundamentalists of science. So spirits, or discarnates, never really enter the discussion. Even Braude, in his SPR bio of Slade, steers clear of the subject, mentioning the “spirit communicators” that wrote on Slade’s slates, but this phenomenon, Slade’s primary phenomenon, is quickly passed over by Braude without any real explanation as to what went on in the slate writing or whether anything of evidential value came from it. Other references, not restrained by a need to be “scientifically correct,” do suggest that there was evidential value in the slate writing.
As for the psychokinetic phenomena – the movement of objects without the aid of human hands – the reader is seemingly left to assume that it is either fraud or mind over matter. “Materialized hands” are mentioned by both Zöllner and Braude, but no attempt is made to link these hands to spirits or to suggest that the spirits are the ones moving things about. That would be too “unscientific” and might invite scoffs, sneers and sanctions from those fundamentalists of science. While the very word “medium” suggests an intermediary between the material world and the spirit world, the man of science must tread lightly in this area and avoid it as much as possible. Fortunately, the researchers of old, such as Hodgson, Lodge, Myers and Hyslop were not so restrained in this regard, though they were well aware of the alternative explanations for various phenomena.
I could find nothing to indicate that Slade was a trance medium, only that he was in a “passive” state when phenomena came about, and therefore it is difficult to say whether unconscious cheating is a defense for him, assuming that cheating, per se, was really involved. Reading beyond both the Wikipedia bio and the SPR bio though, there appears to be quite a bit more on record about Slade that is not said, probably because it all seems to be opinion or speculation by casual observers who really didn’t understand what was going on. However, there were more informed people, like biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator with Charles Darwin of the natural selection theory of evolution, and Serjeant Cox, a well-respected London barrister, who were convinced that Slade was a genuine medium, and there were some, like Eleanor Sidgwick, a prominent member of the SPR, who believed he was a fraud. Such is the complexity of separating fact from fiction in many types of mediumship.
A small group of professors referred to as the Seybert Commission studied Slade in 1884, five years after Zöllner and his group of professors did. Slade is said to have left them believing that he had given them ample evidence of his mediumistic ability; however, after receiving testimony from magicians and psychologists, the commission concluded that what they witnessed was nothing but trickery.
It seems only reasonable that the primary references in such cases should be the scientists and academicians who thoroughly studied the person – the Zöllner group in the case of Slade and Hodgson, Lodge, Myers and Hyslop in the case of Piper. Such men and women are the primary references in the new SPR encyclopedia, not the casual observers or those who never even witnessed the biographical subject. As I see it, the Wikipedia biographers of mediums are like the teenager who was told by his parents that smoking is bad for his health. “But grandpa is 60, an old man, and he still smokes,” was his justification for continuing to smoke.
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
I just went to check the Medjugorje apparitions at Wikipedia. Whatever they think about the phenomenon, they appear not to have mangled the message:
” Our Lady wants no one to be lost. We can help each other find the right way to God. It’s up to the people to obey the messages and be converted. “
“I am beautiful because I love,” she said. “If you want to be beautiful, then love.”
If you’re looking for a direction, then the skeptical reservations at the bottom of the article don’t mean nearly as much as those two quotes do.
I’ll be interested to see what you say.
Michael D, Mon 26 Sep, 13:33
An interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing. Concerning your comment in the last paragraph, I would be interested in your thoughts on the Medjugorje apparitions, the subject of my next blog in a week from tomorrow.
I agree. Even William James never seemed to grasp the “fishing” part of Leonora Piper’s mediumship. He kept claiming that she was fishing for information, while both Hodgson and Hyslop explained that it was Phinuit who was trying to make sense of what he was getting. But James would have had to concede that Phinuit was a spirit to agree with them, and he wasn’t about to make such a concession.
Michael Tymn, Sun 25 Sep, 21:35
I agree with the “fence sitter” proposition, but I think there is more. Let’s try this. A litmus test for research might be whether or not the “researcher” attempts to further understanding of the studied phenomena. Otherwise it is just dabbling under the cover of science.
In practice, virtually all organized study of survival related phenomena (mediumship, ITC) is conducted to see if it is real. In football jargon, this is referred to as not being able to turn the corner. The research hardly ever gets to the point of experiments to see how the phenomena works.
Based on the kind of expository writing I see in the PSI Encyclopedia, and based on the articles I see in supposedly peer-reviewed journals, this is because the person simply lacks the depth of understanding in the subject to properly express an informed opinion.
One must “sit on the fence” if one lacks the wherewithal to effectively argue either side.
By the way, thanks for the review in the Searchlight. I remain amazed at your ability to find the important points in such a mass of word.
Tom Butler, Sat 24 Sep, 19:37
There are some more-global issues here.
Repeatedly, spiritual sources say that information will be presented to searchers when they are ready to receive it. If you believe that (and that has been my own experience, at least), then defective sources probably don’t have much overall effect: people who are interested and make themselves accessible will track down the information they need, with or without help, while people whose understanding is defective will continue to produce misdirection which is really only a mirror of their own state of information.
I find this effect replicated in my own world, in more mundane things like my profession—crackpots and the people susceptible to them find each other and reinforce each other, but the folks who are really on a quest to inform themselves manage to sort it all out and move forward. If you look around you, I think you will find similar effects everywhere, in all sorts of subject matter.
There’s more than enough good information out there, and the internet has made the situation many, many times better for those who want to find it. We live in a golden age regarding the availability of obscure information!
If we want to recreate one of the worst aspects of organized religion, excessive concern with reaching unwashed unfortunates who don’t share our own brilliance and curing them is certainly the obvious path. Can we try to not be that?
Michael D, Sat 24 Sep, 16:44
Yes Michael. I agree with your comment that, “One suspects that they believed more than they let on, but lacked the courage to come off the fence completely for fear of peer scorn.” I think that is especially true with Eleanor Sidgwick considering her position with Newnham
Amos Oliver Doyle, Thu 22 Sep, 20:58
College and being a woman and all. I don’t think we are going to get an enthusiastic statement from Eleanor on anything, but I will look. - AOD
Thanks to all for the comments.
Amos, I more or less put Eleanor Sidgwick in the same class as William James—closer to being a fence sitter. At least I have never seen a clear-cut, enthusiastic declaration of her belief in survival as with the Hodgson, Lodge, Myers, and Hyslop. Like James, she hints at it here and there, but is overly cautious. Both clearly come out in favor of Piper not being a fraud, but are much more reserved when it comes to survival. One suspects that they believed more than they let on, but lacked the courage to come off the fence completely for fear of peer scorn. If you are aware of a clear-cut, enthusiastic statement in favor of survival by Sidgwick I would appreciate having it quoted and the reference.
Tom, I see Braude as being in the same category, nailed to the fence while feeling a need to be remain forever balanced. It seems to be “either/or” with many of them. I don’t understand why they are reluctant to say something like, “the evidence strongly suggests survival,” or words to that effect. They cling to telepathy and superpsi, etc. in order to be “properly scientific.” And that is why no real progress is really made relative to a belief in survival. At least, that is the way I see it.
Rick, thanks for summarizing Fodor’s bio of Slade.
Michael Tymn, Thu 22 Sep, 18:07
Well, I think I would have wanted to place Eleanor Sidgwick along with Hodgson, Myers, Lodge and Hyslop as part of the group that had studied Leonora Piper for years and really knew what was going on with her. As a woman at that time she may not have received the same notoriety as the men who studied Piper but I think she was at many of the sessions with Piper and silently took notes in the background. As you know she eventually wrote up her evaluation of Piper’s sessions which was published in the SPR Journal and is now published in book form. According to Sidgwick, since there were other sources of positive reports about Piper, she would not write about those and only address the findings that maybe were not as supportive of Piper’s spirit influences. Sidgwick was not opposed to spirit influences and embraced the idea of telepathy with spirits, but I think she just didn’t want to be taken in by all the ‘gushing’ over Mrs. Piper that the men did. ( Maybe it was a female competition thing.)
Eleanor was a very smart woman and I value her views on the Piper phenomenon. I don’t see them as negative but just as more information trying to get to a real explanation of Piper’s activities as a medium- AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 21 Sep, 20:12
Argh! Somebody needs to curtail Professor Braude. I know he may seem to be a formidable opponent to some ( I believe he is on the Board of the SPR) but McLuhan needs to take Braude aside and settle him down. Psi-Encyclopedia is not a soapbox for Braude to express his opinions.
Tom, I clicked on one of the links you provided—-the one about post-mortem survival—and there I see Braude’s same old tired example, comparing Helene Smith and Patience Worth. Braude used this same bogus example in several articles he has written not only on the PSI Encyclopedia site but in his books. This example is antiquated by now and Braude uses it over and over again. In my opinion, that comparison reveals a lack of intelligence of the writer rather than anything else.
I have to say that I agree with you Tom, that, ” Now, not only do we have to deal with the anti-paranormal bias of Wikipedia, it is also necessary to deal with the anti-survival bias of the SPR.” -AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 21 Sep, 15:09
Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 21 Sep, 14:00
Good comments Tom. I agree. The PSI-Encyclopedia should not be a soapbox for opinions, especially from one writer—-over and over again.-AOD
Did I read it right, some say spirits do not exist.
When spirits worked me and animals that live with me over.
see my http://www.MyBridal-Chamber.org
And, I am not a liar.
Bogdan W., Wed 21 Sep, 00:07
Mike, you wrote the Piper piece. You should like it!
Have you looked at the FEG article? I sent this email (below) to the SPR and received a reply from McLuhan something to the effect that he thinks the article is fair and balanced.
In my mind the Psi Encyclopedia is a good idea gone wrong with new rocks thrown over the academic-layperson partition at the community.
To the SPR website:
Concernng The FEG article at http://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/felix-experimental-group. The author is using the article to continue his attack on the character of his research subject concerning suspected fraud that supposedly occurred outside of the protocol. This is both unethical and harmful to the research subject and the community.
There will be a lot more that will be said about this and the SPR should not be seen as supporting the attack. My main concern is for the precedence this sets. None of us, including Braude are in a position to know there was fraud with sufficient certainty to allow such public and continuous attacks.
I might also mention that the same author was used for the Postmortem Survival article at http://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/postmortem-survival. The EVP/ITC section at the end is only about 15 years out of date and completely uninformed. Allowing such “debunk by innuendo” tactics of its authors can only harm the SPR. Now, not only do we have to deal with the anti-paranormal bias of Wikipedia, it is also necessary to deal with the anti-survival bias of the SPR.
I was concerned this would happen with their new encyclopedia.
Tom Butler, Tue 20 Sep, 22:37
Thank you for the link to the PSI Encyclopedia!
Elene Gusch, Tue 20 Sep, 21:55
Nandor Fodor, whose Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science remains after more than 80 years a remarkably thorough survey of the field up to his time, was open to evidence both for and against paranormal phenomena. He devotes a fairly long entry to Henry Slade.
Fodor says that Slade was an “American medium of a stormy career, the best-known slate writer over whose phenomena sceptics and believers were bitterly divided both in America and England.” Slade “was visited by men of science who were unable to explain what they saw. Lord Rayleigh took a professional conjurer with him who admitted that he was completely puzzled. He convinced Alfred Russel Wallace of his genuine powers and ‘finally’ solved Frank Podmore’s doubts as to the truth of spiritualism. The author of Modern Spiritualism [Podmore] preserved silence in his later writings over this stage of his beliefs, but he frankly admits that he was profoundly impressed by Slade’s performance.”
Against that and other compelling evidence, Fodor cites a number of incidents in which Slade’s abilities failed him. For example, Camille Flammarion, the distinguished astronomer who also had a deep interest in psychical research, conducted an experiment in Paris. Fodor quotes Flammarion: “I agreed with Admiral Mouchez, director of the observatory of Paris, to confide to Slade a double slate prepared by ourselves ... . The two slates were sealed in such a way with paper of the observatory that if he took them apart he could not conceal the fraud. He accepted the conditions of the experiment.”
Alas, after keeping the slates for 10 days, “when he sent them back to us there was not the least trace of writing inside.”
We appear to have in Slade one of many mediums who convinced intelligent and scientifically grounded witnesses of their supernormal powers, but who failed or perhaps cheated at other times. The latter occasions, though, do not cancel out the successful demonstrations.
Rick Darby, Tue 20 Sep, 21:30
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