From Magonia 71, June 2000
Searching through two reports of the same physical mediumship case, Peter Rogerson finds plenty of convincing evidence, but not what the authors had in mind.
The basic background of these books is simple: four people (out of an original group of seven) with a background in mediumship and related topics, met in a room in a farmhouse in Scole near Diss, Norfolk, and amazing things were said to happen. These included direct voice mediumship, apports, images on still photographs and video recordings, voices on audio tapes, materialised spirit forms, odd lights and in fact the whole shebang of physical mediumship. After a while others are invited to join in the fun, and the group go on tour.
Normally this sort of thing would be barely noticed outside the pages of Psychic Newsbut on this occasion, three members of the Society for Psychical Research, Arthur Ellison, David Fontana and Montague Keen have investigated and appear to endorse the claims. So, is there any evidence in these books which would challenge sceptics like me?
I will take the books in the order I read them, firstly, my response to The Scole Experiment. At first it doesn’t seem very hopeful that much evidence of any kind could be obtained from this book, as its scientific value is negligible. The Solomons only met the group in May 1998, while most of the events recorded in their book took place in 1993-6; so it would seem that much of the material presented is hearsay, told by members of the group and their friends. Some direct testimony is given, some of it by `scientists’, but the majority of these turn to be obscure and credulous spiritualists.
Despite this unimpressive background, I found that very convincing evidence does emerge – that nothing paranormal actually happened – but the authors themselves seem quite unconscious of just how this evidence mounts up as we go along.
Right at the beginning, in Arthur Ellison’s introduction, the clues begins to mount. Now, you know that all these seances have to be held in the dark beause bright lights do nasty things to the psychic vibrations; well Ellison suggests, why not use infra-red photography, with the illumination provided by the participants own body heat, which would allow investigators to keep track of them. Eh, well, er, no actually, because you see its not actually the light as such, but the electric circuits in lights which disturb the vibes. This changing of the goal-posts sets the tone throughout.
Later the investigators suggest placing objects in sealed plastic containers for the spirits to read and influence. Eh, em, well no actually, because the psychic vibes can’t get through plastic you see.
Then there are the spirits – you know the sort: Manu the Inca, Patrick the ‘spoiled priest’ from Ireland, with a touch of blarney, Ranji the Indian prince, Mrs Bradshaw with her ‘clipped Oxford accent’. Did someone mention ‘music-hall stereotypes’? Well these jolly spirits like jolly rousing (i.e. loud and distracting) music. Raji the Indian prince in particular likes good jolly martial tunes (wouldn’t an Indian Prince prefer, well, Indian music? Be quiet you awful sceptic!).
Then there are the conditions attached: don’t think sceptical thoughts that will inhibit the phenomena, sit still, don’t move unless you are told, don’t grab at lights or levitated objects. In other words a mixture of excuses and conditions which individually and collectively tend towards making fraud easier rather than more difficult. A happy coincidence?
Well let us explore further. Several of the phenomena, in order to fake, would have needed access to good quality copies of ancient newspapers, printed sale catalogues and such like. The sort of thing you might come across if you were in the paper trade, perhaps buying up the discarded contents of newspaper libraries, solicitors and estate agents offices, for repulping. By another of those happy coincidences one of the principals in the affair just happens to work in the paper trade.
Then we are told that the phenomena are being organised by a collective of great scientists on ‘the other side’. Ah, perhaps we will at least get some real science then. Of course not, just the same old parade of spiritualist/ theosophist/ occultist cliches from a past age, helped out with the excuse ‘you wouldn’t understand’ when the going gets tough. This was a wise move, because on one occasion there is a major slip up. Dr Ellison, an electrical engineer, uses the word ‘rectify’ in a precise technical sense related to radio waves, but the ‘spirit scientists’ make the mistake of assuming it was used in the everyday sense. An odd mistake for a collective of great minds to make, but not for a non-technically trained medium to make, you might think.
Then add in all the stuff like the trumpet mediumship, so redolent of generations of sleazy back-room séances, and the evidence for fraud becomes pretty overwhelming. What was surprising was not that this was fraud, but that it was so obvious.
This leaves two mysteries. What possible motives could people have for performing such a charade, and how can intelligent cultivated people fall for such arrant nonsense? The first may always be a mystery, it could range from pious fraud, providing ‘evidence’ for what you know to be true, something the religious have done time and again. It could be the sense of power of controlling other people, and getting one over on people who make it clear that they regard themselves as your superiors.
And that is a part of what undermined these particular SPR investigators (it should be pointed out in fairness that other SPR investigators are rumoured to be mightily unimpressed). What did for them was a fatal brew of credulity, wishful thinking, and the kind of intellectual and social snobbery which leads to remarks like these, concerning a rather obscure edition of a poem by Wordsworth “it (was) highly unlikely that the members (of the circle) would have knowledge of these matters”. Obscure poems by Wordsworth are clearly not for the likes of papermakers, carpenters and such like oiks, who haven’t been to Cambridge.
Pretty damning, so when a couple of months later I got a copy of the SPR’s own Scole Report, I looked to see if there was anything which would make that verdict too harsh. No, for what I read in the Scole Report was, if anything even more damning, in the evidence for fraud. For exampie, before the report was to be published by the SPR the group were asked to produce phenomena in more controlled circumstances, in a room specially prepared by the SPR. Guess what, the spirit guides told them that the experiment was over, giving some wildeyed pseudoscientific explanation about influences from the future.
Either the mediums are fooling the investigators, or everyone is being fooled by mischevious boggarts. I leave the boggarts to Peter Hough!
A large chunk of the report is taken up with messages supposed to giving recondite information about early members of the SPR. In then turns out (and it was critics who found this out) that the bulk of this information was in a popular survivalist book The Survival of Man by Oliver Lodge, the sort of book that was the mainstay of spiritualist libraries. Is it a coincidence then that the central character in this saga has an extensive library of paranormal books? For a paragraph or two it looks as though our trio are going to have to concede defeat. Ah, but then Montague Keen inspects Foy’s library and can’t see Survival of Man on the shelves. So it must have been paranormal after all. Sighs of relief all round.
And so it goes: damning bits of evidence piling up, such as the spirit recordings with the sounds of breathing, or the paranormal photographs which have the hallmarks of acetate transfers and came from a single book, and so on. The investigators at times almost concede this, but that would mean “all else was spurious” and that would never do beause these investigators, including Fontana, described as “a highly qualified psychologist who has worked for over thirty years in the field of human behaviour and motivation” have decided that the mediums are not the stuff frauds are made from. They have been on holiday with them and found them pleasant company. All of this would be a good deal more impressive if we did not know that far more people, equally qualified in judging human nature in some cases literally swore their life away asserting the absolute integrity and general good eggness of mass-murderer Dr Harold Shipman!
I think on reading this report that credulity is not an adequate explanation; there is something almost perverse about some of the mental gymnastics the authors get up to produce convoluted paranormal explanations for events instead of perfectly straightforward normal ones. They are anything but ‘open minded’ for they have set their faces against and closed their minds to the possibility of fraud, come what may. Whether this due to a desperate will to believe on the part of these elderly researchers, or the vary obvious egotism which comes through as a constant theme; more or less ‘I am the great panjandrum, these peasants couldn’t put one over on me’.
The result must be one of the most incredible documents to be produced by the SPR for many a year, and one which does little credit to the authors. Of course, not all the members of the SPR were taken in, and the report contains detailed critiques by Donald West, Tony Cornell and Alan Gauld, none of them fully paid up psicoppers, which quietly demolish the claims and suggest ways that they could have been faked. Even if these particular ways weren’t the correct ones, this, as Gauld points out, doesn’t mean that we have proved the paranormal, we just haven’t worked out how it was done. The authors complain that this would be an impossible hurdle, as sceptics could always assume more and more complex conspiracies. There is an element of truth in this, only to the point that it is difficult to see how any party tricks, however superficially difficult to explain would be evidence for the paranormal, which is why psychical researchers abandoned physical mediumship a couple of generations ago. A mathematical cross correspondence or a workable theory of quantum gravity or some totally esoteric mathematical or physical theorem totally unknown to the non-specialist coming from an averagely educated medium would be much more interesting.
As for the Scole affair, perhaps Gauld sums it up best, by arguing, though not using these exact words, that there are only two possible explanations; either the mediums are fooling the investigators, or everyone is being fooled by mischievous boggarts. I leave the boggarts to Peter Hough.
- Grant and Jane Solomon. The Scole Experiment: Scientific Evidence for Life After Death Piatkus, 1999.
- Montague Keen, Arthur Ellison and David Fontana. Scole Report: An Account of an Investigation into the Genuineness of a Range of Physical Phenomena Associated with a Mediumistic Group in Norfolk Society for Psychical Research, 1999.
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