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Adapted from a lecture presented on 20/04/96 at an SPR study day entitled 'Paranormal and the Media'.

Recent years have seen a huge rise in interest in the paranormal, from both the media and the general public. By 'the media' I do not mean just television. It is inevitable that the television should rank foremost in our minds when looking at the way the media treat the paranormal because it has the most vivid impact, the greatest audience by far, and consequently exercises the biggest influence on the minds of the general public. But there are other media which influence our views and raise our ire; the learned publications of academic bodies; the 'serious' newspapers and magazines; the popular newspapers and magazines; the cinema; books: all these constitute the media, and all raise different problems. This is to say nothing of the Internet and its potentially stupendous capacity for changing people's attitudes. I hope to touch on most of these in the course of this article.

The current situation is one of unparalleled confusion. On the one hand there can be little doubt that belief in the paranormal is widespread, and as far as I can judge it appears to be growing. On the other hand the reins of intellectual authority are held more tightly than ever by those whose rejection of anything paranormal has reached heights of near religious paranoia. Both sides are persuaded that the media are firmly in the opponents' court. Those reins are not held exclusively by the scientific establishment. The lay critics, reviewers, columnists, science editors — sometimes — and feature writers are at once the barbicans of the fortress of current orthodoxy, and the advance guard of its infantry.

Past records of the SPR show not only a remarkably exacting thoroughness in research and evaluation of evidence, but, what is perhaps more relevant, a far greater readiness on the part of organs of established scientific thought, even Nature, to publish papers on the paranormal, and engage in civilised debate. In a manner which contrasts lamentably with the closed minds and doors of establishment figures, and organs, today, it was possible for distinguished scientists, philosophers, men of letters, statesmen, and above all academics to engage publicly in psychical research of a very demanding methodological status, involving extremely severe standards of evidence, and to express their belief in paranormal phenomena, without the near certainty of peer-ridicule and the sacrifice of their careers.

The volatility of public opinion about the paranormal is, of course, impossible to gauge by any objective standard, but the influence of the media throughout this period was governed by motives which have always guided the press in search of a story. An exposure, especially one involving careful detective work, is always good copy: and the more prestigious the bubble it bursts, the better. The reverse is not true however: an astonishing claim of a paranormal kind will be treated with the utmost caution, often ignored altogether. This is, of course, prudent. However, it does have disturbing implications for psychical research.

As one who spent nearly twenty five years as an editor, I was constantly receiving and evaluating reports of fresh and remarkable breakthroughs and discoveries which would vastly improve this or cheapen that — and nine times out of ten the workbench promise or laboratory conclusions never translated into commercial success. That is one obvious reason for media caution. But I was dealing with mundane things which rarely even hinted at disobedience to well-recognised physical laws. Where they clearly are in conflict, caution is even more essential.

However, editors and their specialist subordinates seldom regard themselves as omniscient. Confronted with novel claims, whether for water which has a capacity to transmit memories or remote viewing at the expense of the CIA, they turn to established experts in the field. For the main part the experts are products of establishment thought and can be expected to discount, perhaps ridicule, anything unorthodox. This is a general and universal reaction, not peculiar to matters psychic, and has a long and lamentable history.

The scholarly work of the SPR pioneers was not designed to have, nor did it have, popular appeal. Little of the research being conducted was novel or sensational enough to sustain much press interest or to change ingrained scepticism.

Much of the public interest in the paranormal in the inter-war years stemmed from the activities of Harry Price in his widely publicised investigations into the extraordinary physical mediumship of Rudi Schneider, the haunting of Borley Rectory, the posthumous communications about the fate of the R-101 airship, and his vigorous pursuit of ghosts and unmasking questionable mediums. This fed the public with what they could understand, satisfied a natural longing for mystery and, perhaps, an atavistic belief that provided a psychological escape route from the dreariness of a purely materialistic world. Harry Price's false claim that Schneider cheated gravely damaged public confidence in every aspect of the paranormal, and coincided with a long-term decline in the more spectacular phenomena of physical mediumship.

Public interest in the paranormal was considerably revived by the odd intriguing spontaneous case, like the widely publicised trial of the physical medium Helen Duncan under the eighteenth century Witchcraft Act, but for the main part interest by the end of the 1930s had become concentrated on the series of books written by J. W. Dunne on precognitive dreaming, how to do it and how to explain it (which, I recall learning to my surprise, could be understood by anyone able to master the rules of contract bridge, according to Dunne). This, and the apparently spectacular statistical evidence arising from the mass employment of zener card calling by J. B. Rhine diverted attention from spontaneous and hence mainly subjective cases to work which appeared to be susceptible to normal scientific requirements of control, repeatability and statistical evaluation.

The growth in belief in the paranormal in recent years has roused the defenders of orthodoxy to themselves by creating such organisations as the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal which publishes The Skeptical Inquirer in the USA. In this country there is The Skeptic.

Sceptics note with real alarm the popularity of science fiction films which increasingly pose as veridical in their portrayal of alien visitors, The huge popularity of The X Files with its hint that the Truth is Out There, plays on public credulity and in particular on the growing conviction that dark and horrifying secrets are being kept under wraps by powerful and sinister governmental agencies. It seriously muddies the water. Only the specialist student knows just how far over the top these entertaining stories are. The era of faction is superseding that of fiction, and the viewer hardly knows how much, and what, has an element of truth. With its fan clubs, videos, books of the videos, the series has several tens of millions of followers, half believing that these televisual extravaganzas are really the exaggerated face of a horrible truth which will turn our comfortable material world on its head.

I have great sympathy for these views and these apprehensions. Unfortunately the sceptics accompany them with a kitchen sink reaction. By associating the most extravagant occult nonsense with responsible research into particular areas of the paranormal, all are tarred with the same disbelieving brush. Those on the opposing side are a motley crew, ranging from fundamentalist fanatics and abductees with their extra-terrestrial progeny, from callous exploiters of human credulity and the desire for magical reassurance, to sober-sided scientists carrying out painstaking experiments with infinite patience and precautions, or scrupulously investigating reports of poltergeists, hauntings and similar phenomena in the melancholy knowledge that ninety percent will prove non-veridical (which is not the same as untrue, of course) while the ten per cent which are supported by independent, objective evidence will be ignored by the disbelievers.

The SPR has long been regarded, along with its American cousin, as a prime source of raw material for writers, serious and less so, on paranormal matters, since it has a unique store of learned articles and records of research work. The belief that serious research findings will be trivialised, misrepresented, ridiculed or sensationalised has led to a degree of caution, even suspicion, which until recently has resulted in the virtual burial of some fascinating and important material, consigned to wither in the bin of history wherein are buried stories which have long passed their topicality date.

I think that attitude is changing but it has to be understood. Bitter experience has shown that scholarly research and popular journalism, or televisual production, are not governed by the same rules, or inspired by the same motives. No less substantial is the belief that, whether we like it or not, collective opinions will be attributed to the Society. But the real problem is the fear of trivialisation, based on a conflict between scientific thoroughness and the economic need to entertain.

I have a less jaundiced view of the way television is tackling the paranormal, but first let me comment on the extent to which this particular medium is now dominating public discussion and interest in the subject, while the traditional mechanism of mass communication, the press, steers pretty clear. True, the quality press did run the remote viewing story last summer, but it was pitifully inadequate by contrast with the Equinox programme last August entitled The Real X Files. Pitifully inadequate considering we are dealing with comfortably the most spectacular and mind-boggling evidence to have emerged in recent years about the operation of a clearly paranormal faculty, and in a field which has the most far-reaching and disturbing implications for physics, philosophy, social policy, defence, indeed everyday life. Why is this?

First, because the amount of individual and team research required for a half hour, let alone a one-hour television programme likely to be seen by several million people is far greater than most newspapers can contemplate or pay for. Secondly, most editors will quite rightly be very chary about dipping their toes in these dangerous waters. Not simply is there the risk that hoaxing may be responsible: there is a general reluctance to be seen as supporting, by publicising, an occurrence or discovery which appears to provide ammunition to way-out weirdos.

When you get into the paranormal realm you are dealing with undisciplined, volatile, unpredictable and subjective phenomena most of which I am thinking of ghosts, poltergeists, predictive powers, psychometry, mediumship communications — are inherently ill-suited to most of the normal requirement of scientific explanation. As anyone knows who has ever tried to pin down the evidence of the faculty of psychometric reading, in which a sensitive can derive information about the location and appearance of the owner of an artefact — a watch, a piece of clothing, a ring, or whatever — is fraught with problems of interpretation: how much is guesswork; how many false statements or predictions have been quietly ignored; how well will this man's claims stand up to supervised, controlled tests? Above all, will the claimed power wither in the clinical and faintly menacing environment of a laboratory examination? Small wonder if editors prefer to give space to an account of how Bolton Wanderers scored the decisive equaliser in injury time!

So while the scene in which television operates is set by a combination of books, learned papers in peer-reviewed journals, and to some extent the contents of intermediate magazines like New Scientist or the admirable Fortean Times, which act rather like primary treatment works for the lay media, television itself is by far the dominating influence. Is it a good one?

TV producers can take comfort in the knowledge that if they are criticised with equal vehemence from both sides, whether for a political of a paranormal programme, they have probably achieved the right balance. But this is too trite. While the biggest criticism of the sceptical lobby is that the media should even waste time on such rubbish, the psychical researcher's chief target is in lack of depth. Some of the programmes we have seen recently illustrate this: an attempt to squeeze half a dozen or more substantial items into twenty five minutes leaving totally inadequate time for a critical examination. And what discussion there is too often follows the time-dishonoured formula of pitting a handful of believers against a handful of disbelievers, as though this were the definitive rebuttal of any accusation of bias.

The clash between the demands of entertainment and those of scientific inquiry becomes more apparent when the former masquerades as the latter, as it did in at least one of the widely viewed David Frost programmes with Uri Getter and Matthew Manning. From the earliest days of the BBC there have been attempts made to use the enormously influential machinery of sound and later television broadcasting to seek the participation and enlist the responses of a huge audience. Where advice on correct procedure has been taken, the results can be and have been highly productive, although rarely can they be an adequate substitute for the rigours of scientific methodology. But they have been an extremely valuable means of gathering raw material from sources and people whose experiences might otherwise never have come to the attention of the serious investigator.

Writing about this subject in one of the retrospective books published by the SPR to celebrate its centenary in 1982, Colin Godman, who produced four series of programmes on the paranormal for television during the 1970s, and worked closely with the Society, concluded that viewers' responses to a participatory programme in 1975 "suggested that viewers were impatient with a mixture of short films about psychical research, and wanted something more substantial to watch."

I think they are getting it. Nearly all the TV researchers and producers I have met in the past two years strike me as being serious, unsneering and competent. That doesn't mean, however, that they are the ones who always determine the eventual shape and balance of the finished programme, or that I personally always approve of the outcome.

I have hardly touched on the gripping but unanswerable questions: if the latest spate of programmes is a reflection of public interest, as it must be if television bosses understand their jobs and know their market, how long will it continue? Will they run out of raw material? Will anything really new and sensational come along before millenial hysteria swamps us all? I can only give my subjective view, this is a self-generative business. There is an immense pool of experiences out there waiting to be tapped. Most people remain fearful of risking not just disbelief but derision if they admit to strange happenings, whether UFO sightings, poltergeists, out-of-body experiences or recollection of past lives. As more become publicly exposed, the fear of public ridicule will lessen.

But will it just go over the same old ground? I don't think so. There are lots of things going on about which little has been said, and which it would be premature to discuss. But we shall hear more of them soon, and television will play a major role in revealing it.

Meantime it would be wrong to end without publicly deploring the inexcusable neglect of the subject by sound broadcasting. I am not aware of any serious discussion on the radio in which adequate time is given for a serious exposition of any aspect of the paranormal. It has all been left to the totally different medium of television. I can only plead for a change.



Psi and the Media: Pitfalls and Opportunities by Montague Keen
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