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Written in 2002 for The Skeptical Investigations website

Massimo Polidoro is an inveterate exposer of paranormal claims, author of a forthcoming Prometheus publication, "Secrets of the Psychics" and head and founder of the Italian Skeptics Group CICAP.

His most recent (March/April 2003) article in the Skeptical Inquirer, official organ of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), provides an admirable illustration of the subtle manner in which a skilled skeptic can present ostensibly accurate summary of a celebrated inquiry into physical mediumship while subtly contriving to leave the reader with an impression which is the precise opposite of the truth. His article revives the old controversy over the supposed gullibility of those who investigated the celebrated physical medium, Eusapia Palladino during her two decade-long reign as the world’s most intensively investigated exponent of the dubious practice of physical mediumship, in which all manner of objects are moved without apparent human interference.

The most extensive expert assessment of Eusapia’s controversial mediumship is contained in the Feilding Report of 1909 (Proc. SPR 23, pt 59). Ten sittings were held in a Naples hotel by three representatives of the Society for Psychical Research, all of them authorities not merely on mediumship fraud but on stage magic and illusionism. None had ever been satisfied of the genuineness of any physical mediums, but all three concluded their intensive investigation with the belief that they had undoubtedly witnessed paranormal events, and that Palladino, whose resort to trickery whenever given the chance was well known to the investigators and freely admitted by her, had nevertheless genuine psychic powers.

There is no need to debate here the merits of the investigation nor the folly or reasonableness of the conclusion reached by the three investigators. We are solely concerned with the way Polisaro presents the sequel to his readers, very few of whom are likely to have access to the two volumes of SPR Proceedings he references, or be likely to wish to bother to do so even if they had.

Before exposing Polidoro’s little ruse, it is worth noting that, having briefly mentioned the positive conclusions reached by the investigators, he continues, "However, in 1909 and 1910 Eusapia had been caught cheating in the United States" by Hugo Munsterberg. This implies that the investigators were hitherto unaware of Eusapia’s resort to deception and took no steps to guard against it. They were not, and this was well known. It also suggests that Munsterberg was an honest observer, whereas details of his mendacity were publicly exposed by Robert McLuhan in an address to the SPR in July 1998. Polisaro then refers to the abortive post-Naples sittings, at the conclusion of which Feilding, who had arranged and was present at all five sittings, reported in 1911 (Proc. SPR, 25), that all those present considered the physical phenomena to be unquestionably mainly, and in the opinion of Mr Marriott [a conjuror present at three of the sittings] wholly fraudulent, a verdict Eusapia did not dispute. Polisaro quotes Feilding in this context as stating "Everything this time was different", but he does not say what was supposed to be different. He leaves his readers with the impression that the the negative conclusions of the later tests had now obliterated, at least from Feilding’s mind, the positive findings of the earlier investigation.

But what Fielding made clear in his 1911 report was that the conditions of control ruling at the Naples sittings were wholly different from those permitted in these post-Naples sittings. To illustrate this Baggally, one of the Naples investigators, pointed out that in the control conditions in the post-Naples tests, as in earlier ones in the USA which had also been denounced as failures, no phenomena were observed "when both the mediums' hands were distinctly visible away from or quietly resting on the séance table, or both hands seen when being held down by the controllers, and at the same time her body was in view down to her feet". But it was in precisely these conditions at Naples that physical phenomena were observed. He concludes: "In a letter that I have received from Mr Feilding, he says, 'Everything this time was different (from our previous séances) and exactly like the reports given of the American conjurors' sittings'".

Thus what a dutiful reader might sensibly mistake for an implied retraction of his positive report, as presented by Polisaro, is fundamentally different from what Feilding intended. The quotation is correct; the implication is false.



Massimo Polidoro on Eusapia Palladino: A Reply by Montague Keen
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