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Science and the Afterlife – Deborah Blum

Deborah Blum won a Pulitzer prize in 1992 for writing about ethical issues in primate research and has been exploring the intersection – or some would say, collision – of science and culture ever since.

A professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she has written four books, all of which ask questions about the way science tries to define what it means to be human. They include The Monkey Wars (1994), based on her award-winning series; Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences between Men and Women (1997), Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (2002) and Ghost Hunters: William James and Scientific Search for Life after Death(2006).

TDG: Thanks for your time Deborah – Ghost Hunters (Amazon US and UK) certainly is an eye-opening read on the early history of scientific research into the afterlife. To begin with, I’m interested to know why you concentrated on the ‘William James era’ of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Were you lead into the topic accidentally when originally researching James, or is there something about this period of psychical research which made it stand out to you as a writer?

DB: First by accident, then by plan. I was researching the history of psychology for an earlier book (on the science of affection) and I stumbled across some references to William James losing his mind and getting caught up in spiritualism. Other psychologists were just furious with him, angry enough, that I began to wonder why.

As it turned out, they were angry because he was such a leader in the field, they were afraid he would lead the field astray. And was what led me to concentrate on the Victorian period. Because it turned out to be the one time when some of the best scientists in the world – James, Charles Richet and John Strutt (both Nobel Prize winners), Oliver Lodge, a pioneer in wireless communication – were willing to risk their careers to explore supernatural science.

They were so smart, such good researchers, I wanted to know what they found.

TDG: In regards to your statement that they were “willing to risk their careers”: In the 125 years since the SPR was inaugurated, not too much has changed. You mention yourself that you were warned not to write this book, and scientists such as Dr Dean Radin and Dr Gary Schwartz are regularly castigated by ‘skeptics’ such as James Randi as being deluded (or worse, deceiving). In Ghost Hunters, you make note of Henry Sidgwick’s speech at the first SPR meeting, at which he described orthodox science’s resistance and aggression towards psychical research as “a scandal to the enlightened age in which we live.” Do you believe Sidgwick was right, and that the ‘scandal’ continues to this day? Or is it correct for conventional science to maintain and defend its borders against incursions from outside the current paradigm – after all, there are a lot of strange and completely bogus ideas out there?

DB: Here’s the blessing and curse of mainstream science. It’s the most powerful investigative tool ever invented. It has succeeded by following a very strict set of rules for “proof” of a phenomenon. That phenomenon, for instance, must be predictable, testable, replicable, confirmable. An example of this is the freezing temperature of water (phase change from liquid to solid at 32 degrees fahrenheit.) I can predict this and I (and you and the entire population of the world) can repeat and confirm it ad infinitum.

So far, paranormal phenomena don’t follow those rules. They’re not predictable in any consistent sense, and rarely perfectly replicable. So – and this William James complained about bitterly – mainstream science has responded by declaring them nonsense and the scientists who pursue them as pseudo-scientists. The problem with that is that our scientific rules may prevent us from trying new approaches, considering alternative ways to measure reality – in other words, box us into a very limited world.

Bottom line, science plays it safe and ruthlessly defends its limits. Totally human and – here’s the scandalous part – punishes those who try to make the universe a little more open.

TDG: Addressing a couple of details in your answer – firstly, the ‘predictable’ and ‘replicable’ part is an often used reply by skeptics of paranormal phenomenon, but really doesn’t make sense on two counts to me. There are many phenomena that don’t obey this qualification for scientific credibility (eg. earthquakes, meteorite impacts), and once we add intelligence into the equation (ie. if there is a communicating ‘intelligence’ from the ‘other side’) then we not only run into problems with these criteria on a base level, but further, we have to allow for the possibility of deception on the part of this communicating intelligence. So I find this reply (on the part of scientific authorities, not yourself) as somewhat disingenous when it comes to addressing whether paranormal phenomena are worthy of investigation. Your thoughts?

DB: It’s true that not all natural phenomena fit into that box. The Victorian psychical researchers often made that point regarding lightning and comets. But the fact is that even such erratic “events” fit into theories that have other replicable results to back them up. For instance, we can partially explain the orbits of comets by gravity and the plate tectonics theory that underlies earthquake activity is verifiable on all kinds of levels (even though the originally developer of that theory was treated brutally by his peers).

I often think of scientific theories as strings of beads. You verify (replicate, confirm) one bead or more and the power of that allows you to string the other options on that line of thought. In that sense, I don’t see the argument as disingenous particularly, but I do see it as wilfully blind and occasionally arrogant. And we both know that mainstream science can be both of those things. And that refusal to accept ideas out of the mainstream has repeatedly held back the progress of science – again the example of plate tectonics. That’s my real argument. I think the very rigidity of science has made it an incredibly powerful investigative tool into nature – we reap the benefits of that daily. But that same exclusivity has made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do major investigations of some very important questions.

TDG: Do you think we are talking about ‘science’ defending its limits here, or is it really a ‘cult of materialism’ that is doing the defending? When (Laurentian University researcher) Michael Persinger came out with his research on temporal lobe stimulation inducing mystical experiences, we suddenly had Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore enthusiastically reporting on their experience with the ‘God Helmet’ – this before any external replications of Persinger’s work had taken place, or any orthodox acceptance of his theories – is there any difference here to William James and Oliver Lodge reporting back enthusiastically on their experiences with Mrs Piper? In Ghost Hunters, you describe how late 19th century science literally demanded that religion relinquish its territory to the ‘new orthodoxy’ – has physicalist science itself reached the stage of being a proto-Fundamentalist religion?

DB: That’s a fascinating question and, yes, I think that belief systems always play into these issues. It was certainly true in the days of William James and his colleagues, and many of the ideas being discussed by Dawkins and Dennett – the whole concepts of atheism and agnosticism – gained power during that time period. Look at T.H. Huxley, for instance. I think that’s fairly normal and human – we’re all driven by the power of our beliefs. What I dislike is the judgmental quality that results – Dawkins suggesting, for instance, that true atheists are “brights” as opposed to the “dim” spiritual believers.

My own take is that it’s incredible hubris for any of us – whatever belief system we follow – to think we’ve answered every question that circles in this rather incredibly complicated and beautiful universe. Which is one of the reasons I allowed my book to be about possibilities.

TDG: Giving some time to the skeptical arguments – many of the scientists involved had suffered personal tragedies (Gurney lost his 3 younger sisters in a drowning, Myers his true love to suicide, James his baby son to illness). Could these circumstances be an argument against their objectivity – that is, do you think these experiences may have made them too gullible, basically ‘wanting to believe’?

DB: Again, Greg, that’s an excellent question. And, yes, I think you have to consider that aspect. I know, for instance, that Richard Hodgson worried about that “will to believe” in Fred Myers, that James’ critics raised the same question for him. It’s a little more of an issue with Myers, less so with James who remained rigorously skeptical. But as a whole – when you look at the researchers as a group – they check and balance each other. Sidgwick’s caution against Myers’ passion, and so you end up with a very smart, very focused and very fair-minded group.

Which is why I think their work endures so well.

TDG: During your in-depth research into Hodgson’s investigation of Mrs Piper, I’m sure your skeptical side would have been looking for possible explanations for how she was achieving such spectacular results. Many skeptics (and also the NY Times review of Ghost Hunters) point to Martin Gardner’s paper on ‘cold reading’ techniques used by Mrs Piper, fishing for information from participants during readings, as having debunked her mediumship (“How Mrs. Piper Bamboozled William James“). Personally, I can’t see how many of the results achieved by Leonora Piper can be explained this way (or even by ‘hot reading’, considering Hodgson’s efforts at keeping Mrs Piper isolated prior to the readings), and it also seems to avoid many of the stunning results achieved during Hodgson’s long investigation, which was the most authoritative and skeptical. However, I would love to hear your opinion, considering the comprehensive research and reading you did on the long period under which Mrs Piper was investigated by the SPR

DB: Yes, I read Gardner’s paper and, frankly, he wasn’t as scathing as some of the psychologists working in Leonora Piper’s time. There’s more valid criticisms of her in the work of Stanley Hall and especially Joseph Jastrow. And frankly, if you read the reports from the ASPR and SPR, they discuss all of her flaws and weaknesses, the often fictional nature of her “spirit guides”, the tendency on some days to go on fishing expeditions for information.

All of that is in the book, in addition to the psychical researchers’ numerous exposes of other famous mediums of the day, from Anna Eva Fay to the Fox sisters to Henry Slade. There was, there is, enormous potential for fraud in this particular field and, of course, there are a lot of examples of that in my book.

You remember that James and his friends calculated that about five percent of what they investigated had some reality to it. Which again tells you that most of what they looked at was fraud, wishful thinking, etc. But they thought – and I think – that Leonora Piper, at her best, was firmly in that 5 percent. That she had bad days, days when she couldn’t pick up anything, days when she tried to cover that up. That her spirit guides were probably creations of her own mind, struggling to cope with the bizarre information that did she pick up.

But that she did know things that she simply couldn’t have known – and, yes, I found I agreed with them. A hundred years later, if you read the Piper reports with an open mind, she remains sometimes completely inexplicable.

TDG: I have found it interesting to see how the reviews of Ghost Hunters seem to depend more on the worldview of the reviewer, rather than the actual prose and story presented in the book. Has it been a shock to you – especially considering the high praise afforded to your previous books – to see the bias against open discussion of the ‘survival’ research of the SPR?

DB: Actually, I expected worse. When I decided to write the book, a lot of my mainstream science writing friends warned me against it, speculated that it would damage my career. That didn’t change my mind but it did make me a little nervous when the book came out.

For instance, I did an interview about the book on NPR’s Science Friday and the host warned me in advance that he expected the audience to be hostile. So I was sitting in an affiliate studio (in Durham, N.C. at the time) prepared for some kind of verbal lashing. What I found, though, was that some people – as you noted – were very close minded. But a surprising number, like me, found the questions really fascinating. In fact, even on the science-minded NPR show, people called in to tell their personal ghost stories.

After that, I just relaxed about it. I’ve spent years building up a reputation as a credible science writer – it’s worth spending some of that capital on a fascinating idea.

TDG: A number of those ‘skeptical’ reviews of Ghost Hunters have suggested that your ‘balanced position’ shows that you did not read up on the techniques of fraudulent mediumship, and hence your account was overly credulous (James Randi himself made this point in his newsletter). Can you clarify as to whether you researched things like cold reading, and the other methods used by conjurors and charlatans?

DB: Yes, I knew I was going to get that reaction and, candidly, I thought I could live with it. I’m an obsessive over-researcher so I looked at cold readings, muscle readings, the wonderful fraudulent devices used by mediums, the works. But what made the story interesting, worthwhile, wasn’t the fraud. Do we need another book debunking dead mediums?

The whole point of my book – the one I knew would get me in trouble with the Randis of the world – was that possibility exists, that some things remain genuinely fascinatingly explicable, and that there are still questions that deserve to be answered in the realms of the supernatural. Even if we only learn that “supernatural” is the wrong word, that the real answer is that we simply haven’t found the limits of the natural world yet.

TDG: The book does a marvellous job of putting the reader ‘in the head’ of the SPR investigators, by outlining their emotions on certain issues, their motivations etc. Did you have to take some creative licence in writing in this manner, or were these personal facets obvious from the articles and correspondence uncovered during your research?

DB: Good question – and the short answer is all those descriptions are based on fact. I knew doing the book that I’d have to be scrupulous about the research because it’s a controversial subject. Plus I tend to be pretty meticulous by nature – my sons tell me I’m a born nerd. That’s not to say that my own perceptions or ideas don’t color the way I work. For instance, I found the Sidgwicks quite charming – despite their very upper class ethic and despite the fact that Nora Sidgwick was so upright and humorless and often socially inept. I liked her awkwardness and her stubborness and her courage and so the picture I draw is a very positive one. It might have been less so in someone who found those qualities not so endearing.

TDG: To finish, the tough question – but you can keep your answer extremely short, no need for an explanation. In light of your experience in writing Ghost Hunters, if you (personally) had to answer the question with only a yes or a no: is there something beyond death?

DB: I don’t know. But I will tell you that before I researched the book, my answer would have been No. So I’m glad I took the time and trouble – it’s made the world a more interesting place for me.

GHOST HUNTERS is available from Amazon US and UK

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