This article, albeit in a considerably shortened form, was due to appear in The Skeptical Inquirer, organ of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). It was intended to be a response to a criticism of claims of paranormality in general, and belief in communication with the dead in particular. The criticisms, published in the November/December 2000 issue, were from no less a figure than the founding chairman and leading thinker of CSICOP, Paul Kurtz (Kurtz 2000) Although the Editor of the Inquirer undertook to publish my response, and even averred that Professor Kurtz himself supported that intention, various pretexts were given for delays over the following eighteen months until finally it became clear that the Editor was reluctant to fulfil his earlier intention.
There is no duty on the part of an avowedly propagandist organisation to publish
material clearly hostile to its deeply held beliefs. But where such a body constantly
emphasises its adherence to the strict requirements of scientific rigour, its abhorrence
of misrepresentation, its denunciation of pseudo-
Kurtz's article disregards inconvenient facts dealing with the evidence for life
after death. His concern arises from the "intense popular interest" in these questions
in the United States, a concern he illustrates by listing a number of best-
All serious psychical researchers are aware that the most formidable body of evidence
for discarnate communication resides in the cross-
Anyone claiming to be an authority on the subject who is unaware of them or who (worse
still) chooses to disregard what he cannot explain, is not serving the interests
of objective science. Let me give in summary just one experiment and invite Kurtz
or anyone else to explain how the evidence can be squared with his views. It is an
old case, but good evidence neither rusts nor withers. It is in no way dependent
on subjective assessment, cold readings, inflamed emotions, religious belief or any
of the other explanations which litter Kurtz's article and reflect the explanations
repeatedly advanced by such leading skeptics as Frank Podmore, Ray Hyman, C.E.M.
Hansel, Chris French, Richard Wiseman, Joe Nickell, and many others. Unlike the bulk
of the cross-
Leonora Piper was (as Kurtz rightly states) a famous Boston medium who was investigated
under controlled conditions, notably by Professor William James, the father-
When Sir Oliver Lodge learned of this, he decided to pose the same question through
another medium known as Mrs Willett, with whom he was having sittings in London.
She was a very intelligent, well-
When Lodge asked why "Myers" had not given the same responses, Mrs Willett's automatic writing replied that, had he done so, critics would have dismissed the evidence as mere telepathy between the mediums.
This summarises lengthy and detailed accounts of these sittings which appear in several Proceedings and issues of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, whose leading sceptic, Frank Podmore, did his best to ascribe the Piper evidence to telepathy. He died before the Willett confirmation was available, but even he was clearly rattled by it (Podmore, 1910). He would have been a good deal more rattled had he known that around this time, apart from Mrs Willett and Mrs Piper, three other mediums, most unknown to one another, were producing scripts with references to doors or sesame (as in Ali Baba's command) or even in some cases, less punningly, to the name of Dorr (Sidgwick, 1910). It need hardly be said that the simplistic explanations of fraud, cryptomnesia or collusion were thoroughly investigated and decisively ruled out by the highly critical group of experts who examined these cases.
This evidence is a small fraction of the huge volumes of independently written or spoken messages coming from a number of mediums in different parts of the world in which fragments of individually meaningless phrases, names or quotations were later assembled to make collective sense, just as a scattering of fragments of a jigsaw puzzle might begin to assume a discernible picture only when the parts are fitted together. The aim was obvious: it was to falsify the hypothesis that telepathy or clairvoyance could account satisfactorily for communications giving information which would appear to have come only from the entity purporting to communicate.
One of the first, and most obvious, steps that had been taken by distinguished and experienced investigators like William James, Hodgson, Lodge and Myers was to eliminate all of the "normal" explanations involving sensory perception or deduction, which sceptics traditionally use to explain away any apparently veridicality in such communications. Having done so, they were left to settle the two immediately outstanding issues: (a) is the information derived telepathically from human beings, or does it comes from discarnate sources, and (b) if the latter, how can one be certain of the correct identity of the purported communicator?
Critics have long argued that, without intimate knowledge of Latin and Greek, anyone
would find these cross-
Survival is not proven: it is a matter of the weight of evidence and the competing
explanations. But what every serious and unblinkered student of psychical research
has accepted for a century is that the issue is not whether the evidence points to
the existence of a telepathic faculty in mankind: that was regarded as clearly established
by the end of the 19th century, long before Rhine and his successors tried replicatory
experiments. It was whether the evidence, primarily that from sources immune to attributions
of cold reading, body language, guesswork, hallucination, misdirection, darkness,
ambiguity or deception, pointed clearly either to the existence of one or more discarnate
intelligences, or whether it could be ascribed to a superior form of telepathy among
the living, later to become familiar as the super-
Yet Kurtz, in purporting to give his readers a potted account of the history of such communications, ignores them altogether. He leaves his readers with the impressions that the leading figures in both the Society for Psychical Research and its younger USA parallel body devoted their attention either to reports of apparitions and ghostly hauntings or to physical phenomena. The former Kurtz dismisses as subjective hallucinations, despite massive evidence that accurate information, unknown to the percipient, was most commonly associated with the event reported. The latter he cites only to refer to those occasions when accusations of fraud were made against such prominent practitioners as Eusapia Palladino and several unnamed but allegedly bogus mediums exposed by Houdini. Kurtz acknowledges that, like purported demonstrations of ESP, this has little to do with the survival of human intelligence or communication with the deceased. One consequently looks for a scholarly and objective summary of evidence which has convinced so many distinguished scientists, psychologists and philosophers in the past, to say nothing of a substantial segment of USA citizens, whose gullibility Kurtz clearly laments.
They look in vain. First, there is the dismissal of all mediumistic statements on the grounds that either sensory clues or direct fraud can be trusted to explain them all. There is no indication that tests which completely eliminate such hypotheses were conducted more than a century ago by scientists no less sceptical than himself, that proxy sittings, which preclude sensory clues, are commonplace, and that readings by telephone and email are now not infrequent.
Nor is there the least hint in Kurtz's criticisms of many hundreds of experiments were undertaken during the 1920s and 1930s in particular by Drayton Thomas in book tests (Drayton Thomas, 1922). In these, a purported discarnate communicator identifies a passage of significance and relevance to a known individual, and which appears on a line or specified part of a page of a book located at a given number of places from a stated end of a numbered shelf on a particular cabinet in the library of the experimenter or someone he is representing as a proxy. Similarly ignored are cases like Drayton Thomas's lengthy analysis of a proxy sitting with one of the century's most gifted and prolific mediums, Mrs Osborne Leonard (Drayton Thomas, 1939), where both the quality and quantity of pieces of veridical information are assessed against the performance of another medium, showing striking successes.
It is equally noteworthy that readers are left in total ignorance of what many now regard as the most persuasive evidence for some sort of survival: Professor Ian Stevenson's four decades of research into children who remember past lives. Stevenson's work, especially those cases where children show birthmarks closely related to the location and shape of mortal injuries sustained by their previous presumed incarnates, is particularly relevant to any objective review of the evidence for survival. To overlook it is like giving an account of evolutionary theory without mentioning The Origin of Species.
One familiar technique to avoid this uncomfortable evidence is to tarnish the evidence for both telepathy and survival by lumping them into the same basket of questionable companions as phrenology, astrology, numerology, Biblical fundamentalism and creationism. Likewise, by implying that the evidence for discarnate communication is based on the activities of unscrupulous psychics feeding on gullible clients desperate for a sign that their loved ones are still around, Kurtz destroys any claim he may have had to objectivity.
Typical of this technique is an article by Professor Kenneth Oldfield (Oldfield, 2001) published in the Skeptical Inquirer 12 months after the appearance of Kurtz's denunciation of the paranormal and all who believe in it. It was and related to what many psychical researchers would regard as one of the classic cases indicative of intelligent communication from beyond the grave, or (as an improbable alternative) an extraordinary demonstration of telepathy among the living.
Shortly after the death in August, 1933 from drowning of the young inventor, Edgar Vandy, his brothers consulted a number of mediums in conditions of elaborate anonymity, taking full records of all the five sittings. They wanted to discover just what had happened. These sittings yielded a wealth of highly precise and accurate information about Vandy, his secret invention, and the circumstances of his death. The case is lengthy, but meticulously documented. It was published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in 1957 and extensively analysed by the distinguished philosopher and psychical researcher, Professor C. D. Broad (Broad, 1962). Oldfield went to considerable lengths to obtain a copy of both these publications, and he devoted most of his lengthy article to showing that "all the Vandy 'hits' can be explained as cold readings, luck, preparatory research, or common parlour tricks".
In the light of Oldfield's dismissal I made a detailed analysis of this evidence.
His ostensible purpose was to show how foolish a certain Professor Arthur Miller
had been to take the Vandy case seriously enough to warrant the construction of a
(highly fanciful) theory of near-
This is all the more dangerous for those whose skepticism is hardening into an immunity
to disturbing evidence – evidence which threatens to undermine a well-
Kurtz's dilemma is one squarely faced and sedulously dodged by his colleagues in the hierarchy of CSICOP: once telepathy or its associated phenomena of clairvoyance are conceded (as virtually all serious students of the subject had done by 1900) the way is open for consciousness to be recognised as a faculty unlimited by earthly boundaries of time and space. And once a gateway is thereby opened, there is nothing to stand between the sturdy fortress of scientific orthodoxy and the submergence of mankind in a wave of occult beliefs and superstitious nonsense. Hence it becomes essential to select the weakest and ignore the strongest evidence, to smear what one declines to contest, and to suppress what it would be dangerous to acknowledge.
However as a last resort, there is always the philosophy of Master Wilkins Micawber,
that something will sooner or later turn up to explain everything. It has a respectable
ancestry, as the following quotation shows. It was by the eminent Nobel Laureate
biologist Charles Richet who remained firmly wedded to a materialist philosophy despite
his acceptance after thirty years’ investigation of the reality of extra-
“I believe in the hypothesis, now unknown, which the future will establish – a hypothesis which I cannot formulate for it is unknown to me.” (Richet, 1924)
Balfour, Countess of. 1960. The 'Palm Sunday' Case Proceedings, Society for Psychical
Research: 52 (187) 79-
Drayton Thomas, C. 1922.
Drayton Thomas, C. 1939. A Proxy Experiment of Significant Success. Proceedings, Society for Psychical Research, 45, 257-
Keen, M. 2002. Edgar Vandy and the unmasking of Professor Oldfield.
Kurtz, P. 2000. The New Paranatural Paradigm. Skeptical Inquirer: 24 (6) 27-
Leiter, L.D. 2002. The Pathology of Organised Skepticism,
Lodge, O. 1911. Evidence of Classical Scholarship and of Cross-
Oldfield, K. 2001. Philosophers and Psychics: The Vandy Episode.
Piddington, J.G. 1908. Three Incidents from the Sittings (with Mrs Piper): Proc. SPR 24 (60) 86-
Podmore, F. 1910.
Richet, C. 1924 Proc. SPR 34, pp 107-
Sidgwick, E. et al. 1910. Further Experiments with Mrs Piper in 1908.
Verrall, A.W. 1910. Classical and Literary Allusions in Mrs Piper's Trance
Wiseman, R. and O'Keeffe C. 2001 Accuracy and Replicability of Anomalous After-
Wiseman, R. and O’Keeffe, C. Assessing Mediumship Communication: paper given at the International Conference of the SPR, September 2002.