Alex Tsakiris, host of the Skeptiko podcast, is currently working with the panel from The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe (most notably, Dr Steven Novella) in order to undertake a 'bipartisan' research demonstration on the claimed abilities of mediums. In a recent podcast, Tsakiris and Novella fleshed out the protocol for the demonstration (see here for the protocol text). This is a great step, with a group of skeptics finally cutting the talk, and getting their hands 'dirty' with some actual experimentation - in concert with someone (Alex) who comes from the other side of the fence when it comes to opinions on psychic abilities.
On the downside, I do see some issues likely to pop up. Firstly, the intrinsic nature of a 'one-off' experiment/demonstration such as this is likely to result in a dispute over the validity of the data - no real conclusion will be able to be reached without many more experiments of the same kind. Beyond that, I'm not sure a third party scoring protocol is the best way forward for research with mediums: the often-told story about sessions with mediums is that they bring up lots of nonsense, but then have one massive hit that is hard to dismiss by coincidence. I think this is best scored by the person themselves - though I'm not sure of the best way to approach it (multiple mediums, only one of whom is 'genuine'?).
In any case, it will be interesting to see how this develops. In the meantime, Alex has also posted a new podcast interview with Julie Beischel, who is a bona fide researcher on this topic.
Yahoo has video of a strange news case in which it is claimed that an elderly woman was dead - that is, with no brain waves - for 17 hours, before suddenly resuscitating herself as nurses made final preparations for the dead body. The family had made the decision to turn off life support, but the woman was left on a respirator for almost a day as a decision over organ donation was mulled over, despite showing no signs of brain function.
When interviewed, she said "I feel blessed and I know God has something in store for me." It would be interesting to know if she underwent any sort of (Very!) Near Death Experience, and also to get a full report from a scientist/medical doctor rather than relying on this media report for details. Much more here and here. I still have some questions over the "10% chance of survival" mixed with "no neurological functioning", and also how long her body temperature was lowered via hypothermia. Thanks RPJ and Kat.
We reported a while back about rumours concerning Steven Spielberg's involvement in a "Paranormal Facebook" - that is, a social networking website devoted to paranormal topics. In today's news briefs, RPJ points at a fresh update on the state of the project:
The site will reportedly be called “Rising” or “The Rising” (our understanding is that they have acquired both .com domain names), and the logo above and animated logo below are at least preliminary versions of the final.
...The Rising will have original video content with a permanent host in addition to the social network where users can share stories and experiences, tapping into serious demand for this kind of thing.
Not sure whether to take this at face value, or whether it could all be a movie (or game) tie-in, or even possible an Alternative Reality Game (ARG). Guess we'll see as time progresses (in the meantime, if Mr Spielberg needs a news guy for his new site, I could sure use some income for this gig...)
In other Spielberg-related news, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has opened, and reviews are pretty good (see Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB). Looks like it recaptures the vibe of the series well, which is no mean feat - I'll have to check it out. (BTW, I just finished typesetting Filip Coppens' article on the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull for Darklore Volume 2, and I'm sure you folks will really dig it)
Over one hundred years ago, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) - with members from the top tiers of science - embarked on a search for evidence of an afterlife. Although largely forgotten by the public today, some of their research findings were compelling. Many people point to the sittings with mediums Leonora Piper and Gladys Osborne Leonard, as the most convincing. However, those who have studied the SPR's research in depth also would probably raise another candidate: the 'cross correspondences'.
[T]he Cross-Correspondences were fragments of information that came through different mediums and which in themselves meant nothing. However, when pieced together they formed coherent messages. The objective was for the communicating spirits to demonstrate that the messages were not coming from the conscious or subconscious of a single medium, or by means of telepathy from another human, or from some cosmic memory bank. It was as if the spirit communicators devised a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle with the pieces scattered in various parts of the world.
The obscurity of the cross correspondences is no doubt due to the sheer complexity of the communications and 'puzzles', which most lay readers don't have time for. However, a recent book by Professor Archie E. Roy may offer the best insights yet. Titled The Eager Dead (Amazon US and UK, I've now heard from numerous people, in the know, who consider it a wonderful exposition of this difficult topic.
One of those is Michael Tymn, an expert in the history of psychical research (and who contributed a fascinating article to Darklore Volume 1. Mike wrote a glowing review of the book, commenting that not only did it discuss the scientific aspect, but also offered human insights into the relationships between the dead and living people involved. Filip Coppens too has just this week posted an article to his website about the cross correspondences, inspired by his reading of The Eager Dead. Both articles give an excellent overview of the case, so check them out when you get the chance. Better still, pick yourself up a copy of The Eager Dead.
An interesting development in the UK with the British government announcing that 'spiritual services' will now be included in consumer protection laws, a move which has led to concerns from those who earn their money from such pursuits. Whereas with the previous legislation the onus was on prosecutors to prove fraudulent behaviour, under consumer protection laws psychics and the like may be required to show their abilities are genuine:
The Government says the regulations target "misleading or aggressive" activities and "will not affect the supply of spiritualistic services in themselves".
But many mystics fear they could be sued by customers unhappy with the service they have received, or be forced to prove in court they really have otherworldly powers. Some envision having to make customers sign a waiver before a seance or a sitting. Even more gallingly, they fear they might have to advertise that their services are for entertainment purposes only.
Skeptic Ben Goldacre has additional comment in his most recent Bad Science column, and makes some good points (although I disagree with his summation of psychics in general). Most importantly, how such a law is going to be policed, considering that there currently is no set test for mediumship:
With my tiny brain, I can't see how anyone is going to rationally police this kind of thing, given that the whole industry is, by definition, based on nonsense, and it's plainly undesirable to ban things simply because they're stupid...
...If we're going to be paternalistic about the credulous, you might hope we start with Carol Vorderman's high interest "loan consolidation" adverts before we get to Cilla Black's £1.50 a minute Psychic Hotline service. Although I bet they make a great pair.
The latter point is a good one as well. And if 'psychic' statements are to be considered under consumer protection, what about similar statements (about the future, wellbeing etc) by religious authorities?
All the same, regulation of some description may be just what the doctor ordered - and some psychics agree. It's quite obvious that there are large numbers of outright frauds involved (while skeptics might say "all" rather than "large numbers", I've seen enough in my time to still find some merit in the field). To be really optimistic, perhaps it could even result in more attention being paid to some sort of scientific testing or certification - though in reality I doubt that this new legislation will be policed with much force...rather simply used as necessary for egregious infringements.
Will be interesting to watch in any case. Certainly, it may focus some attention on some very grey areas as to what should constitute 'genuine' psychic ability...
I'm looking forward to seeing the movie Death Defying Acts, starring Guy Pearce as the legendary Harry Houdini and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a fraudulent psychic. Despite the film not getting overly enthusiastic previews, I'm really interested to see how they treat Houdini's interaction with the spiritualist scene, and how much historical information is included. The movie outline reads...
It is 1926, and Harry Houdini is the most famous performer in the world. Audiences flock to watch him perform his amazing stunts. But the man behind the legend is a tortured soul, having been unable to hear his mother’s dying words. He offers a $10,000 reward to anyone who can contact his mother from beyond the grave. When a beautiful but deceptive psychic, Mary McGregor, and her sidekick daughter, Benji, take the challenge, Harry is initially skeptical, but is soon captivated by her charms. The more time he spends with the mysterious woman, the more attracted he is, and what began as a con soon evolves into a passionate and complicated love affair, as Houdini attempts the most dangerous stunt of his career.
That description might be enough to get James 'The Amazing' Randi foaming at the mouth, considering how he holds Houdini as somewhat of a hero-figure - a magician who turned his talents to exposing bogus spiritualist mediums. But perhaps the outline is a little misleading, and Pearce's Houdini will in fact be the harsh skeptic that Houdini was in life. It will also be interesting to see how this romance between Houdini and the psychic is managed, considering that in real life Houdini was married for 33 years to his wife Beatrice (Bess), right up until his death.
During the 1920s, Houdini became perhaps the most well-known debunker of psychic claims (despite this, he had a rather peculiar friendship with Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an avowed believer in Spiritualism). One of the more notable cases he investigated was the physical mediumship of 'Margery' (real name: Mina Crandon), as part of a Scientific American investigating team which offered $2500 for proof of psychic abilities - and this story itself is worthy of a movie.
The campaign continues to posthumously pardon "the last witch", UK medium Helen Duncan. The strange tale of how Duncan was charged, possibly in order to suppress her psychic secret-telling about World War II operations, has made the Daily Mail:
When the battleship Barham was torpedoed by the Germans in November 1941, with the loss of over 800 lives, the Admiralty delayed announcing the news to maintain morale. But the secrecy was ended within a few days when medium Helen Duncan told a couple during a seance that their son, a sailor on the ship, had appeared from the spirit world to tell them it had sunk.
In one of the most bizarre acts of the Second World War, Mrs Duncan was accused of leaking military secrets - and became the last woman jailed as a witch in the UK. Now campaigners want an official pardon for the Scots-born mother of six, who spent nine months in Holloway Prison, north London.
This episode has given Helen Duncan a certain notoriety as being a genuine psychic in Spiritualist circles, but it should also be pointed out that it seems likely that she was plenty fraudulent as well - Michael Prescott recently posted a comprehensive blog entry, with links to photos. That's not to say that Duncan didn't have any psychic talent...many spiritualist stars seemed to mix fraudulent tricks with apparently genuine abilities. But worth keeping in mind both sides of the story.
Hollywood super producer Steven Spielberg is preparing to launch a new social network, we’ve heard from multiple sources. The focus will be on users who’ve had or who are interested in sharing paranormal and extraterrestrial experiences. The new social network may also have original video content investigating alleged ghost and UFO stories.
Not sure what to make of that really. A few very interesting, genuine experiences, mixed with the entire populace of Crazy Town? If it is for real, let's hope they do something innovative with it that enhances the paranormal field in some way (h/t to Paranormalia, which has extended comment on the news).
SFGate.com has a good article looking at the recent conference on 'the afterlife' hosted by the Forever Foundation in San Francisco. Presenters included Loyd Auerbach, Dean Radin, Bruce Greyson, Julie Beischel and Gary Schwartz:
These academics take their paranormal work seriously; they also risk ridicule on campus and struggle to find sources of funding to investigate what happens after we die. One of the issues they face is whether an afterlife is provable by scientific method. Some, like Julie Beischel, who co-founded Arizona's Windbridge Institute for Applied Research in Human Potential, think it is.
"This is how science works," Beischel said. "There's a question and science investigates it. You can't draw a line and say, no, that's outside of science. Science doesn't have any boundaries in what it can investigate."
Nice to see sensible, open media coverage of the event.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has a refreshingly objective profile of paranormal investigator (and Professor of Philosophy) Stephen E. Braude, which is definitely worth checking out. Excerpted from the article:
Braude, 62, is one of the few mainstream academics applying his intellectual training to questions that many would regard at best as impossible to answer, and at worst absolutely ridiculous: Do psychic phenomena exist? Are mediums and ghosts real? Can people move objects with their minds or predict the future? A professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Braude is a past president of the Parapsychological Association, an organization that gathers academics and others interested in phenomena like ESP and psychokinesis, and he has published a series of books with well-known academic presses on such topics.
His latest, The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations (University of Chicago Press), is sort of a summing up of his career, filled with stories of people who claimed to have otherworldly abilities. The writing is so fluid that the book at times seems made for a screen adaptation. (In fact, Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, contributes a blurb to the back of the book. Braude advised Carter on a screenplay he is writing.) But Braude also includes some dense philosophical arguments — especially in a chapter about synchronicity, in which he ponders whether humans can orchestrate unlikely coincidences through psychokinesis, the ability to move or influence objects with the mind.
As mentioned in the article, Braude has a new book out: The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations (Amazon US and UK), which he describes as his "kiss-and-tell book" about his paranormal research (with plenty of dumping on the 'skeptics' by the looks of it too). Looks interesting.