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Paid Debunkers: How the Public Is Misinformed by the Media and Academia About Psychic Phenomena

Posted on 15 October 2012, 12:17

I was asked not long ago to write an essay on the subject of ectoplasm for an anthology covering psychic and spiritual matters.  After I submitted the essay, the editor requested that I revise it by making it “more balanced,” pointing out that many people from the scientific community would be among the readers.  He wanted more of the skeptical side presented as my paper clearly made a strong case for the genuineness of ectoplasm.

Ectoplasm exuding from the medium’s mouth

The editor’s request brought to mind my interview with Dr. Gary Schwartz eight or nine years ago.  Schwartz, who had done some significant research with clairvoyant type mediums at his University of Arizona laboratory, stressed that there are two sides to each story – the medium’s and the skeptic’s.  However, when the researcher, such as himself, found evidence favoring the medium’s side, the TV producers and other media people found it necessary to call in a paid “skeptic” or debunker to “balance” the issue. In effect, the TV producers saw Schwartz as having joined sides with the medium, as if he had become the medium’s advocate, and therefore insisted that “balance” be restored with a paid debunker, who, in all likelihood, had done no research of his own but based his arguments on debunking theory, such as cold reading, chance guesses, etc.  The contestants in the debate then became the medium and Schwartz on one side versus the debunker on the other side, when it should have been the medium vs. the debunker with Schwartz as the judge.  Instead of the viewing audience appreciating the strong evidence supporting mediumship, the desired result was a draw or a standoff.  And so it seems that this was also the desired result of this academic anthology.

With this need for balance by the media, as well as by academia, is it any wonder that no significant progress has been made in convincing the general public of the reality of mediumship and other phenomena lending themselves to the truth of life after death? 

Consider the subject of ectoplasm.  In my essay on the subject, I summarized the research of Professor Charles Richet, a Nobel Prize winner in medicine, Dr. Gustave Geley, a respected physician and scientist, Dr. (Baron) Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, a German neurologist, Dr. William Crawford, an Irish engineer and educator, Dr. Bernard Laubscher, a South African psychiatrist, among others. All of these researchers clearly began as skeptics or with objectivity, intent on confirming allegations of fraud or ruling it out.  In fact, both Richet and Schrenck-Notzing, though completely satisfied with the reality of ectoplasm, remained skeptics when it came to the spiritisic explanation.

goligher ectoplasm
Ectoplasm photographed from medium Kathleen Goligher, as photographed by Dr. William Crawford

“This ectoplasmic formation at the expense of the physiological organism of the medium is now beyond all dispute,” Richet wrote.  “It is prodigiously strange, prodigiously unusual, and it would seem so unlikely as to be incredible; but we must give in to the facts.”  Geley stressed that the experiments were carried out under very strict controls.  They were conducted in his laboratory, to which no one was permitted beforehand.  The medium was strip searched before the experiments.  Even gynecological exams were performed to be sure nothing was smuggled into the room.  “I do not say merely, ‘There was no trickery,’ I say ‘There was no possibility of trickery,” Geley emphasized. “Nearly all the materializations took place under my own eyes, and I have observed the whole of their genesis and development.”

Schrenck-Notzing had 180 sittings with one medium. He went so far as to require rectal examinations to rule out anything being smuggled into the séance room. “[The phenomena] are undoubtedly genuine, and only a malicious prejudice could doubt the reality of the occurrences,” he wrote.

Like Sir William Crookes before him, Crawford referred to ectoplasm as “psychic force” and later as simply “plasma.”  As he came to understand it, this “plasma” was taken from the medium’s body and reabsorbed by her at the end of the séance.  During his experiments, he began communicating with “operators,” his term for the “intelligences,” “invisibles,” or “spirits” on the other side.  One of the operators said that he was a medical man when on earth and that his primary function was to look after the health of the young medium. He told Crawford that two types of substances were used in the production of the phenomenon.  One was taken in large quantities from both the medium and the sitters, then returned to them at the close of the séance.  The other substance was taken exclusively from the medium in minute quantities and could not be returned to her as its structure was broken up. It was pointed out that it came from the interior of the medium’s nerve cells and if too much were taken she could suffer serious injury.

Crawford brought in a scale large enough to hold the medium while she was sitting in her chair.  He discovered that when a table was being levitated, the weight of the table, usually around 16 pounds, was transferred to the medium through the psychic (ectoplasmic) rods extending from the medium.  Most of the time, the transfer of weight would be a few ounces short of the weight of the table.  Further experimentation revealed that the extra weight was being transferred to the sitters in the room, who apparently furnished small amounts of the “psychic force.”

While initially subscribing to the subconscious theory of Richet and Schrenck-Notzing, Crawford gradually changed his mind and concluded that the ectoplasm and subsequent materializations were the work of spirits of the dead.

Sitting with the famous physical medium Alec Harris of Wales during 1965, Laubscher,  reported that he witnessed a number of full materializations.  Nine people, including one other physician, an engineer, and some businessmen, and their wives, sat in a half-moon circle in a room with only one door, which was locked.  Harris sat in a corner in a curtained-off “cabinet” in which there was nothing but a chair. The séance was held under red lights.  “After a while the curtains opened and we could see the medium in his chair apparently in a deep trance and unconscious of all around,” Laubscher described the event. 

“Then a white cloudlike column formed within the opening of the curtains and began to assume the outline and figure of a person.  It occurred to my mind that unseen hands were covering an unseen personality with some doughlike substance, namely ectoplasm, drawn from the medium as well as ourselves.” 

Dressed in flowing garments and a veil, all of ectoplasm, the figure moved and spoke in a female voice. “She moved among us and appeared quite solid and was recognized and greeted as the deceased mother of Mr. Harris, the medium,” Laubscher continued his report. He recognized that the skeptic would believe that Alec Harris was impersonating his mother or that a confederate had been smuggled into the room, but said that neither was a possibility, mentioning that he could see the medium in the chair and that the red light permitted him to see all others and any movement in the room while the door remained locked at all times.

I cited the work of other respected scientists and scholars in my essay, all equally certain of the reality of ectoplasm.  “Balance” would have meant finding a dozen or more researchers who wrote it all off as fraud. I know of no such researchers or references.  I know of many scientific fundamentalists who had one sitting with a medium and refused to believe that it was anything but fraud and I know that there were a number of actual frauds, using cheese cloth or some other substance to simulate ectoplasm.  But why bother with the one-time sitters or the actual frauds when such respected scientists as those mentioned, had scores, even hundreds, of sittings with genuine mediums and were able to attest to the reality of it? 

I wonder if all the research suggesting a positive correlation between lung cancer and smoking can be balanced by citing many research projects indicating no positive correlation, or even a negative correlation.  Or should all that research pointing to a positive correlation be discounted because every now and then we hear of someone 90 or older who claims to have been a life-long smoker?

Again, it must be stressed that Richet, Geley, Crawford, Laubscher, and all the others were dealing with the fraud aspect in their methodology.  The “balance” is already built in. Why must we continually reinvent the wheel over and over and over again?  How can the general public ever come to accept the research supporting the survival hypothesis and other psychic phenomena if the media and academia insist on balance?  We need truth not balance.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After we Die, Transcending the Titanic, and The Afterlife Explorers Volume 1., published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and all good online bookstores.

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Next blog:  Oct. 29



This is an edited part of something that I posted on another thread on this site and is relevant to this discussion:

This is a field in which it is extremely difficult to generate serious debate.  The Internet is awash with sceptics screaming ‘fraud’ and claiming that all reports are ‘unscientific’.

I find this hugely amusing because the very same sceptics are committing every mortal sin in the world of scientific research:
•  They have not read the original research
•  They have not replicated the original research
•  They have not demonstrated any alternative
•  They have not published their research.

This is something that they can’t have both ways. 

If they have not followed the above established protocol, it is they who are being unscientific and anything they say cannot therefore be classed as anything more than unsupported opinion. 

The common practice amongst sceptics is to seize on a single item which, by application of the most extreme improbability, might provide an alternative explanation to a specific observation.  This is then accepted as sufficient ‘proof’ to dismiss years of research.  In the context of this thread, one example of proven fraud is accepted as sufficient to dismiss every example over the last several hundred years as fraud.  Fortunately, this is not how science works. 

I frequently mention Scole, and with good reason.  The observation and documentation was sufficiently sound to provide the necessary framework for the above protocol:
•  replication
•  demonstration
•  publishing the results.

Many sceptics have been invited to replicate Scole but they invariably resort to claiming that one detail of Scole MIGHT have been fraudulent and claim that as grounds of dismissing all of Scole as fraudulent.

In so doing, they have demonstrated to the whole world their total lack of understanding of the scientific principles of research and infinitely far beyond any perceived lack of scientific rigour in the reports themselves.

No sceptic so far has undertaken to replicate Scole in its entirety.  I wonder why!!

The older experiences and records involved mediums who never charged a penny for their work, which rules out the commercial profit factor.  There was no need of fraud.  Some cases of fraud were detected but the majority.  Similarly, most of those who spent years writing up observations did so out of intellectual interest.  It was expected that any refutation would be accompanied by sound reasoning.  An airy wave of the hand in dismissal was regarded as an admission of limited intellect.

This was all pre-Internet, so we did not have anonymous trolls seeking their five seconds of fame by trying to rubbish everything with weak and unsupported argument.

I do not argue with demonstrably unscientific sceptics and never will until someone comes up with refutations based on the accepted scientific protocols, upon which I will follow the scientifically correct process of not opening my mouth until I have conducted a full reading of the material so presented. 

The Time Traveller

The Time Traveller, Tue 27 Nov, 08:51

Thanks Michael.

I could be wrong but I would assume that strong, experienced magicians may be better at trying to unravel fraud than scientists as they are used to trying to fool people so know what to look for. That said, not all magicians are equal in terms of abilities and it may just be that no magician would know about all possible forms of deception.

Perhaps best to have magicians and scientists take part in physical medium displays as they could complement each others’ strengths.

Lee, Tue 20 Nov, 02:54


I forgot to respond to your comment about magicians. I once knew a pretty good amateur magician and asked him about ectoplasm.  He said the only tricks he knew were those he had read in books about magic or deception. He could only speculate on ectoplasm and offer the same old cheesecloth explanation.  As to how cheesecloth exudes from pores or from ears,  he had no clue.  Why is there an assumption that all magicians know every form of deception or that they are all equally capable?

Michael Tymn, Mon 19 Nov, 02:27


Thanks for your additional comment.  I don’t think that the one bit of misinformation about your dad necessarily means that it wasn’t your dad communicating.  As I pointed out in an earlier blog (“Difficulties in Spirit Communication Explained”) some months ago, I don’t remember when, much of the disinformation coming through is a matter of misinterpretation by the medium or the medium’s control.

It has been pointed out by a number of communicating spirits that they have to be able to put themselves into a dream state in order to communicate and just as dreams are distorted, their messages are often distorted. 

Coincidentally, I had a dream last night in which I encountered a young neighbor boy, age 5, being lost in a department store. I helped him find his mother.  I knew it was the neighbor boy, knew his name and his mother’s name, but when I awoke out of the dream I realized that he didn’t look like the neighborbor boy.  I helped him find his mother and she looked exactly the same as she looks in the real (or unreal) life.  So I wonder why he didn’t appear the same. Apparently, there are similar distortions in mediumistic communication. My latest book, not yet released, (Resurrecting Leonora Piper) deals somewhat with the problem of communicating, although I am not sure that the problems are similiar with clairvoyant mediums as they are with trance mediums, such as Mrs. Piper.

The bottom line here is that you should not assume that one bit of disinformation negates the whole reading.

Michael Tymn, Mon 19 Nov, 00:50

Thanks Michael, you raise some very good points. I did not catch the part where it noted how “It is not known whether Schrenk-Notzing was actually deceived….” Good that you did.

I agree that even if some researchers were duped, and no doubt some were, this does not mean the phenomena is not real. I also agree that many extremely bright scientists of the day (long ago) concluded against fraud. I realize that scientists like Crookes and others were brilliant men; ones that understood all about proper control methods, so for so many of these men to be written off as having been duped, or accomplices to fraud, also stretches the bounds of rationality.

Did you come across in your research magicians who took part in researching the phenomena of physical mediumship? I ask because magicians would be able to tell how to reproduce many of the claims (more so than scientists and other intellectuals)? Of course for activities which magicians could not explain (or replicate), these would appear to be most meaningful, for me anyway. In my readings, I think I may have come across the mention of one very good magician who researched physical mediums and concluded that some of those studied were real (as he could not figure out how to replicate some of the things that went on during physical medium sittings).

As an aside, my mom had a reading (over the phone) with a minister of a spiritualist church yesterday. The medium was able to provide specific evidence re my dad (who passed away about months ago)-I was impressed with some of the messages. But, the medium noted how my father regretted my not being beside him at time of his death, which was not the case (I was in and out of his bedroom as he was dying). If he was really communicating, he should have seen that I was in and out of the room during his death process.

Given the above, how does one reconcile some messages which seem to be so accurate and meaningful, with a message that, on the face of it, appears to be completely wrong? Had the medium not passed on this last message, I would have thought that perhaps she communicated with my dad. But given the last message, I wonder whether perhaps she communicated with no one, but only got lucky on her other messages (perhaps her subconscious mind guessed correctly, or whatever).

Over the course of my readings, I come across anecdotals about great mediums who were correct on so many aspects of their readings, some which were extremely specific and evidential, yet wrong on some other extremely important points. How does one reconcile this fact?

Thanks for your thoughts.

Lee, Sun 18 Nov, 22:53


Thank you for all your comments.  As I just got back from a trip two days ago, I just had the opportunity to look at that link which supposedly states that Schrenk-Notzing was tricked by Laszlo.  However, it clearly states several paragraphs down that “It is not known whether Schrenk-Notzing was actually deceived….”

In so many of these stories, the debunkers speculate that someone was tricked and then it somehow spreads around as fact.  Some historian then starts researching the records, finds the supposed exposure but then doesn’t find the rebuttal.  Then some modern scribe paints an incomplete picture of the whole thing.  I don’t know if that is what happened in this case, but the above quoted sentence seems to suggest nothing more than speculation.

That is not to suggest that some of the best-known researchers couldn’t be tricked or even that they weren’t tricked a time or two.  However, when you are talking more than 100 observations by some of these researchers, including Geley, Schrenk-Notzing, Crawford, and others, it is difficult to believe that all of them could have been tricked so many times, several hundred or more in the aggregate.

Sir William Crookes, one of the great scientists of his time, was criticized by his fellow scientists, who said he must have been duped by D. D. Home and Florence Cook.  To which Crookes replied, “Will someone please give me credit for some common sense.”  Then their were claims that Crookes had an infaturation, maybe even an affair, with Florence Cook.  And it was said that a great scientist like Crookes does not necessarily make the best psychical researcher, that only magicians can judge.  And so the arguments go.  If I were to list what I believe to be the 10 most evidential cases in the history of psychical research, you could find some psuedoskeptical argument against each one. When all other arguments fail, there is always the claim that the researcher was dishonest and made up the whole story, etc., etc., etc. At some point, one has to look at the cumulative evidence and recognize that it goes wey beyond fraud, even if fraud was a factor in some of the cases.

As Dr. Crawford suggested, the supposed fraud exposures were greatly exaggerated, primarily because those making the exposures didn’t understand what was going on and didn’t realize that you can’t always apply terrestrial science to celestial matters. Some of it is beyond science and we are then left with the will to believe or to disbelieve.

Michael Tymn, Sun 18 Nov, 11:47

Hi Michael,
I wanted to point out that there seems to be much fraud in the area of ectoplasm mediums. For example:
Schrenck Notzing’s credibility suffered a big blow because of this fake medium, endorsed by Notzing.

Also, ectoplasm medium Stanislawa Tomczyk may also have been a fraud:

This is not to say that they are all frauds, but I can understand how scientists would scoff at all this when they read about noted fraudsters who were able to convince men such as Notzing simply by being great tricksters.

Lee, Sat 10 Nov, 19:33


We could go keep going around in circles on this subject, but I shall make no further attempt to persuade you in my direction as it is clear that you will never be convinced. However, I will say that I agree that some of it looks like cheesecloth, but that doesn’t mean it is cheescloth.  Hamilton, like the others, examined it, and saw it for what it was—ectoplasm. The problem was that the spirit controls told the researchers that the medium could be injured if even a small part of the ectoplasm was detached, as it had to be reabsorbed by the mediums. The reabsornbtion was witnessed by various researchers.  To reabsorb cheesecloth would seemingly be a neat trick. A few people did manage to collect some ectoplaam, but it dissolved n their hands or in the containerin which it was placed. 

As for the fact that much of it looked “hokey,” i.e., weird faces and figures, etc., it is because the spirit trying to materialize did not have the ability to do work with ectoplasm. It would be like asking me to draw a picture of myself.  You wouldn’t get much more than a stick figure as I have no artistic ability whatsoever. To use the ectoplasm to materialize, the spirits had to project an image of themselves, as they remembered themeselves looking, and only a few of them could project a proper image.  The hokey ones were like my stick figure drawings. I will leave it at that.

Michael Tymn, Tue 23 Oct, 12:37

I took a look at some of the Dr. T. G. Hamilton photographs in a compilation available on the Web. A number of them looked to me very much like some fine gauze or muslin-like material. You could tell by the thin filamentous structure, definitely a fine cloth. Some looked especially faked, because of also having what appeared to be photographs of various faces stuck to the material(!). Other photos of ectoplasm in the collection were harder to analyze.

For me, the validity of the entire body of photographs is put in question by the (to me) apparently faked ones. But as I mentioned before, I can’t believe that all the distinguished researchers into materializations were deluded or were frauds. Any more than the investigators of the best trance mediums like Leonora Piper and Gladys Osborn Leonard. It just might be best not to put much weight on the existing historical photographs of the phenomenon and leave it at that.

doubter, Tue 23 Oct, 02:22


I think the bottom portion of the top picture could pass for cheesecloth, but there is too much density in the top part of it.  It does not resemble cheesecloth in the bottom photo.  How does cheesecloth flow?  I’m not saying that there wasn’t some charlatan along the way that used cheesecloth, although to what end I don’t know.  Again, the cheesecloth is pointless if something doesn’t take form out of it.

Dr. T. G. Hamilton of Canada probably took more photos of ectoplasm than anyone else. His photos show it oozing out of the pores of the medium.  How does one stuff cheesecloth in the pores of her neck and shoulder?  The debunker would probably say that she must have had it hidden in her arm pits, etc., etc.  There is no end to the “could have” or “might have” theories.  One of the debunking theories with a medium studied by Richet and Geley was that she had it stuffed in a false tooth. We are talking hundreds of observations by these scientists, not just a single one.  Do you really think men of that caliber can be duped dozens or hundreds of times under controlled conditions? Keep in mind also that the ectoplasm was sometimes just vaporous, as with D. D. Home.

Michael Tymn, Mon 22 Oct, 14:19

“As to Doubter’s comments, it is one thing to allege cheesecloth, quite another to explain how forms materialized out of the cheesecloth.”

I agree. It is certainly very hard to believe that Richet, Geley, Schrenck-Notzing and Crawford were all deluded, incompetent or fraudulent in their investigations into materialization phenomena. 

But the problem still is that as far as I can tell, in all the existing photographs of ectoplasm (like the two photos in this article) the substance looks like cheesecloth. Please correct me if I am mistaken in this. Why would such a subtle quasi-material substance produced out of the body of the medium always when it is actually photographed just happen to look like something that can be stuffed into human orfices? This sort of leads to a cognitive dissonance, with on one side apparently incontrovertible observational evidence of materializations, and on the other side the “cheesy” look of the available photographs which purport to show the ectoplasmic substance that the materializations are built with. As as has been noted before, the phenomenon appears to refuse to be unambiguously pinned down.

doubter, Mon 22 Oct, 07:12

It is interesting that the SPR has never committed itself officially to the survival hypothesis and that the organisation has its fair share of skeptics. So the arguments continue to go round and round without a final resolution, despite the evidence and the passing of decades. It appears that even the SPR backs ‘balance’.

I just wonder why skeptics should wish to spend their time assuring us that something isn’t true by trying to knock down the evidence without providing their own evidence to the contrary. More important than what isn’t true is what is true. No ‘proof’ has yet been provided that survival does not exist and materialism is all there is. Yet materialists are not required by the media or other academics or journals to provide ‘balance’ that hints at other possibilities.  The debate goes far wider than just ectoplasm, although I very much enjoyed and appreciated Mike’s excellent article. I hope he told the editor concerned to “stick it”, in the most robust terms!

KP in UK, Sat 20 Oct, 02:03

Thanks to all for the comments.  To answer the question abut the article being published, I withdrew my submission.

As to Doubter’s comments, it is one thing to allege cheesecloth, quite another to explain how forms materialized out of the cheesecloth. The ectoplasm in and of itself has no purpose.  It is what the ectoplasm produces.

Michael Tymn, Thu 18 Oct, 23:54

It is so true because as you say, the “debunkers” have not done a whit of research.
It is ridiculous!

Yvonne Limoges, Thu 18 Oct, 13:55

All I can tell you is this: When I was about 8 years old I went to bed one night and as soon as I was about to drift off - I LEFT MY BODY! No doubt about it!
In a massive shock I found ‘‘myself’’ looking down at me - and I knew it was ‘me’. I panicked and noticed that I was joined by a silver cord and then I began to ‘grab’ at it in order to ‘‘pull myself back down to ‘me’???
I am 56 years old now but I remember this like yesterday.

Steve Rogers, Tue 16 Oct, 04:22

Very interesting, thank you. Could we have the reference or link for the article on ectoplasm, which presumably has the references to the other works you mention? How does the story end? Did you provide the required ‘balance’ or put across the points you make here? Did the editor/s accept the article?
I have had a not dissimilar experience.

Fiona Bowie, Tue 16 Oct, 04:07

Thanks for a very interesting article. The research described seems to be convincing. But unfortunately, the two photographs look like frauds using some sort of fine cheesecloth-like fabric concealed in bodily orfices. I am not a skeptic when it comes to mental mediumship and automatic writing, but such physical mediumship seems to be more problematic.

doubter, Tue 16 Oct, 03:36

The comparison to evidence about smoking and cancer is an apt one.  We know how many decades the tobacco industry went on insisting that there was no real evidence that their products caused cancer.  Denial is an amazingly powerful force.

Your experience with the editor is so frustrating.  All I can figure is that editors, along with their readers, would like to leave questions seemingly open because it is more comfortable not to be forced to believe in anything as reality-shifting as ectoplasm.  Also, if questions are never resolved in articles, one can keep publishing more articles that leave unresolved questions… if we were to say, for example, “Ectoplasm: Incontrovertible Proof,” there would be far less reason to keep writing about it.

Elene Gusch, Tue 16 Oct, 03:04

Did they publish it with “balance”  Is a copy available?


Bill Stoney, Tue 16 Oct, 00:07

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