Saturday, June 20, 2015

Ghost-busted

Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum (2006): The afterlife was a big concern of the 19th century in Europe and North America, especially ways to prove its existence with newfangled scientific methods. And the occult had risen to new heights as religion began to recede, in a manner that looks an awful lot like our world. 

But former science reporter Deborah Blum's focus here is on the great American philosopher William James and a small group of American, British, and Australian scientists who took it upon themselves to investigate psychic phenomena between the 1880's and the early 20th century.

For all its flaws, this is a fascinating book. And even the flaws are fascinating because they seem to replicate the flaws of the investigations of James and others without Blum realizing it, or acknowledging it. Overall, James and his friends demonstrate what would eventually become a fact in skeptical circles: scientists are not very good at investigating the paranormal. 

If you want to test a psychic or a medium or a spoon-bender, you need people with training and expertise in prestidigitation and in the area of "cold reading" and assorted other psychological ploys used to get information out of people without those people being aware that they've given that information.

Nonetheless, these scientists did some interesting things. Their "Hallucination Census" has, if nothing else, a great name. And they did uncover a wide variety of spiritual and psychic frauds. That they seem to have been hornswoggled by a few mediums and psychics isn't surprising: confronted by the deaths of loved ones, tormented by lost loves, far too many of these investigators wanted to believe. Just like Fox Mulder. And it left all their research in question.

One of the oddities completely missed by Blum is the fact that virtually all the major psychics of the time were women, in a world that mostly barred women from professional and academic work. Hmm. How strange. And while Blum touches briefly upon a few scandals attached to the investigation of mostly female psychics by mostly male researchers, she doesn't go into detail about how many of these investigations worked. 

Keep in mind that the scenes set in some of these psychic testing rooms look like something out of a porn movie: the female psychic naked and supposedly immobilized by the hands of several men; the tendency of some female psychics  to perform in the nude; the covert sexuality of many of the mediumistic sittings (one medium painted a baby's face on one of her breasts and had mourning parents kiss this 'face' of their lost children); the full-body searches enacted again and again; and the extreme sexual assertiveness of many of the female mediums.

James didn't conduct the enquiries himself, though he was an ardent and public supporter of them. Some of the investigators did pretty solid work. Others were, in the carnival parlance, rubes. Still, this is an interesting and often moving exploration of people seeking for new answers to old questions, even if I think the author ultimately falls into many of the same traps as her subjects. 

One of the fundamental problems with the text is that Blum never explains fully to the reader how one of the favourite mediums of James and his investigators actually conducted her sessions. Was she randomly spouting out impossible-to-know information without prompting, or was there a dialogue going on? In truth, it seems that there was a dialogue going on, and that the infallible psychic was at the very least doing some form of reading of her questioners. 

Blum dismisses in a few lines what happened with this favourite medium when a new team of investigators tested her: she failed utterly, inventing intimate details about fictional family members the investigators created for the purposes of the test and failing to do much of anything when it came to the past lives of real dead people. Beyond this, there were apparently (mostly unmentioned by Blum) endless sessions with the medium that generated false information. When it comes to selection bias, why did Blum select this counter-material almost completely out of the book? Hidey ho. So it goes. Recommended.

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