Sunday, 14 February 2010

However Improbable Vol 2 Issue 2

However Improbable Vol 2 Issue 2 - Autumn 1997

Putting the Chronic in Chronicles of the Paranormal

The July 1997 issue of science fiction magazine SFX carried an item about Ghostbusters star Dan Ackroyd, who hosts an American paranormal show yet to be seen on these shores called Psi-Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal. The allegedly true stories are based on files compiled by the Organisation for Scientific Investigation and Research, a U.S. group which aims to explore paranormal cases. Judging by a couple of examples of cases given in which the content had to be toned down as “too unbelievable” for viewers - the man who committed suicide by sticking an electric drill in his head 42 times and the woman who stabbed her husband to death with a wedge of Swiss cheese, changed to bludgeoning for, ah, credibility - the content is more Fortean than straight psychical research, despite the title. It transpires that Ackroyd’s family has been involved in psychical research for four generations, his great-grandfather being a member of The Society for Psychical Research, a background which inspired Ghostbusters as well as Psi-Factor. Sounds as if the new venture will provide a jolly reliable source of information, with I’m sure no thought of cashing in on the success of The X-Files.

Julie Milton and Richard Wiseman, Guidelines for Extrasensory Perception Research

University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield, 1997.

In an earlier issue of HI, I reviewed a booklet by Wiseman and Robert Morris, Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants. The success of that publication is demonstrated by its promotion to the first in “an important new series” of Guidelines for Parapsychological Research, with Wiseman, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire, as editor. This booklet is the second in the series and is as valuable, if drier, than its predecessor.

The first chapter deals with definitions of ESP and the types of experiment that can be done to test those types of claim. Subsequent sections examine procedures, including choice of participants; randomness of targets; shielding the target before, during and after the experiment; and scoring, analysing and reporting results. There is a decent bibliography and a handy checklist to ensure that all areas of possible error are eliminated, but, like the earlier work, no index.

All this is crammed into 94 pages, with quite a lot of white space, so inevitably it tends to the schematic. Unlike other books on the market such as Are You Psychic? and How to Test Your Psychic Powers this is not a DIY manual for use by the novice with no scientific background. It is designed for researchers who already have an experimental grounding to allow them to make sure that their research efforts are rigorous and able to withstand sceptical scrutiny.

On those terms Milton and Wiseman have been successful. More on statistical procedures would have been useful, but that reservation aside, it is an admirably concise high-level overview of a major area of psychical research. For those who are contemplating laboratory work, or would like to subject journal reports to rigorous examination, this is an important addition to the literature.

Andrew MacKenzie, Adventures in Time: Encounters with the Past

The Athlone Press, London, 1997. £25.

To begin with, I must declare an interest. The first serious book I read on psychical research, and which fired my fascination with the subject, was MacKenzie’s Hauntings and Apparitions, published as part of a series to celebrate The Society for Psychical Research’s centenary in 1982. I am therefore biased in favour of anything from Mr MacKenzie’s pen.

His new book is also published in conjunction with the SPR and is the first of a new series entitled Studies in Psychical Research. Its subject is retrocognition, “the experiencing of the past in the present, whether in visionary form or, in very rare cases, being able to walk through an area and see it as it was in the past with features of the present day obliterated.” It is a much better definition than the vague one he quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary, which refers to “knowledge of the past supernaturally acquired”. This would also cover hypnotic regression, reincarnation, psychometry, even mediumship, subjects not dealt with in the present book.

Of the various cases presented, two stand out, one famous, the other investigated by the author and presented here for the first time. The first is the Versailles “Adventure” of Misses Moberly and Jourdain in 1901, the other occurring at Kersey in Suffolk in 1957, where three teenagers were possibly transported back to the village as it might have appeared in mediƦval times. The Dieppe case of 1951 is given a chapter, as is a bizarre story from the SPR Journal of 1947 in which a man nearly fell over a cliff while walking through a landscape apparently no longer in existence. A number of more minor cases are included, some from the literature and others communicated to the author. These are balanced by a couple of examples of claims that a house had disappeared being due, upon closer investigation, to malobservation.

MacKenzie makes a strong claim for retrocognition, that it is the most controversial and puzzling of all psychic phenomena. Unfortunately I am not able to go that far with him. Precognition would seem to be a far more difficult area. While it is possible to conceive say a house somehow imprinting its existence on its surroundings so that it can be seen long after it has vanished, to have a similar vision of a thing or event not yet in existence, and which cannot be inferred from current conditions, is a harder notion to accept.

MacKenzie would be the first to agree that the theories so far suggested for retrocognition are unsatisfactory, and he introduces them diffidently. He does acknowledge the problem of complex hallucinations in certain instances but feels that this is not a satisfactory conclusion when veridical information is required during a timeslip experience. He also points out that similar attributes occur repeatedly during episodes, such as a feeling of depression and extreme quietness. These would indicate a real phenomenon rather than fabrications, which would exhibit no such patterns.

Backward causation from particle physics is a possible candidate for an explanation (the discussion on this is mercifully clear) but it is a massive extrapolation from sub-atomic to large-scale events. The idea of some kind of kink in space-time seems to be an appealing hypothesis, but MacKenzie points out that as some of these instances lasted for up to half an hour, it would be quite a substantial kink.

Unconvincing too is H.H. Price’s ‘imprinting’ theory whereby emotions can be left on a place, to be picked up by sensitive persons. Thus Jean Overton Fuller’s mother had become inconsolably sad when visiting Versailles, an occurrence MacKenzie associates with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette experiencing strong feelings on the eve of their executions. But this begs the question why these should have been the feelings picked up (presumably people had also been happy there at other times, or did the monarchs have some kind of prerogative when it came to laying down an emotional trace?).

Any place, especially one with a long history, will have a range of emotions associated with it, and if we were prey to these to any extent we would literally never be able to call our feelings our own. What happens if a building is demolished and another, perhaps with a totally different purpose, built in its place - Which would have priority? If this theory has any validity the question should not be why these occurrences are so rare, but rather why they are not happening more often.

Whatever the cause or causes of retrocognition, MacKenzie is totally correct when he argues that if the cases under consideration appear to clash with our notions of reality, they should not be dismissed, but rather we should ponder on our notions of reality. The literature on the subject is surprisingly sparse, and the book contains a request for further cases. If anyone has come across a timeslip happening either to themselves or somebody known to them they can send an account in via the SPR (and we would definitely be interested to know about it ourselves).

This is a fascinating and nicely produced volume. The major drawback, and one that will reduce its potential readership, is the price - £25 for a fairly slim book of some 165 pages. Hopefully Athlone will consider a paperback version soon, both so that it can be more widely read, and to rectify the inadvertently amusing misprint on page 86 where a house is said to stand back from the road “some 25 years”.

Note: The second volume in Athlone/SPR’s parapsychology series will be Tony Cornell’s Investigating the Paranormal: Spontaneous Cases and Other Related Phenomena. I understand it will be a kind of investigative autobiography dealing with three areas - Hauntings, Poltergeists and Mediumship. It is due to be published in the Autumn of 1997 at £35.

Spirit Hands: A Request for Information

In the last issue of HI (page 4) I mentioned the ‘spirit hands’ produced by Franek Kluski. These were alleged to have been produced by spirits materialising their hands in paraffin wax then dematerialising them, leaving an impression which could be filled with plaster. The problem with creating a fake is that it is difficult to see how a human hand (i.e. not capable of dematerialising) could be extracted if the fingers were crossed, as those casts produced by Kluski were. Moulds could be an answer, but would leave tell-tale lines, and carvings could not hope to reproduce the hand prints which plaster preserves. All in all, these hands would appear to be examples of “a permanent paranormal object” - assuming that they were not faked in some way.

So it was with interest that on a recent visit to London I went into The Trocadero and saw a stand at which people could have wax casts made of their hands. Apart from the different medium, the examples in the photographs on display looked remarkably like Kluski’s efforts, complete with twisted fingers. I would have loved to have had my own example made to see how it was done, but the stallholder was not present and the photos did not show the process in detail. It is possible that these wax hands have seams, but a cursory examination of the pictures did not reveal any. If any reader can tell me any more about this procedure I’d be interested.