Monday, 15 February 2010

Review of The Scole Experiment

This is an orphan book review, and I am fairly sure it has never been published. It was possibly written for a proposed resurrection of However Improbable, the magazine of the Anglia Paranormal Research Group. That though ceased publication in 1997, and this would have been written in 2000, shortly after the Solomons' book appeared, so it may have been intended for another outlet.

The Scole Experiment: Scientific Evidence for Life After Death

By Grant and Jane Solomon, in association with The Scole Experimental Group. Piatkus, 2000, £9.99.

The Scole phenomena have been floating around, originally confined to the pages of Psychic News, for some years. What makes them so interesting is that they were produced by a group concerned to resurrect the venerable but now largely discredited tradition of physical mediumship. To do so the four main participants met regularly in the cellar of Sandra and Robin Foy’s house in Scole, Norfolk. During a large number of séances, many attended by interested visitors, and a few held overseas, firm contact with the spirit world was apparently established and sensational phenomena produced, including weird lights, apports, pictures - some very beautiful - on roll film, images on videotape, and voices on audiotape.

The group seems to have had the worthy intention of showing that underneath the excesses and exposures of the Victorian period was a bedrock of genuine communication between the living and dead. Eventually three senior, and very sympathetic, investigators from the SPR, Monty Keen, Arthur Ellison and David Fontana (the latter two past presidents), became interested, and before long Scole had received the accolade of a series in The Daily Mail and a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article in The Sunday Times magazine by Bryan Appleyard. The Solomons’ popular account brings together the varied evidence collected by the participants and gives a history of the sittings. The SPR investigators also produced a massive tome, published as a Proceedings, which covers the same terrain in exhaustive detail.

The Solomons came in towards the end of the enterprise (which lasted from 1993 to 1998), so most of the accounts they collected were hearsay. The reasons for the spirits deciding to finish the work were frankly barmy, involving experimenters from the future and energy vortices. This development occurred just as outside interest (and therefore public scrutiny) in the work of the group was increasing.

Unfortunately there were weaknesses in the procedures adopted. Like those of their forebears, séances were conducted in complete darkness, and the spirits were vehement in their resistance, for no sound reason, to requests for infra-red to be used to record proceedings. Granted the four movers were never caught cheating, but the controls were particularly rigorous, so there was scope for fraud, a fact upon which the subsequent controversy has hinged.

And apart from the physical evidence, fascinating as it is, little of worth was produced. In particular, there was supposed to be an entire team on the ‘other side’ conducting scientific work, but they do not seem to have come up with much, apart from Spiritualistic platitudes. And typically the team members were coy about providing hard and fast information about their pre-mortem selves.

References by the Solomons to the early SPR’s cross-correspondences, in which discarnate individuals communicated with different mediums with outwardly meaningless snippets, which were then combined into meaningful wholes, are irrelevant in the Scole context. There, snippets were sent to the same individuals by spirits for recombination, totally missing the point - the original experiments hinged on the mediums being far apart, and therefore unlikely to collude. If the mediums are in the same place, you have to assume that the discarnate communicators are separate and genuine entities for the ‘cross correspondences’ to make sense, the very fact you are using the completed messages to prove.

So what are we to make of Scole? The implicit assumption of the authors seems to be that essentially the participants were not bright enough to commit fraud, and did not gain financially; they were probably considerably out of pocket at the end of it all, after having spent hundreds of hours in their cellar. If this was fraud, the motive is difficult to ascertain, unless it was intellectual pleasure, such as arises from completing puzzles, or perhaps the desire to put one over on the ‘experts’. They have also gained a large amount of publicity, from this book, the subsequent SPR report, and the coverage in the national and specialised press.

Ultimately the Solomons have not made a convincing case that genuine paranormal events occurred in the Scole Hole. Simply because what happened is difficult to explain (if accounts are accurate), does not automatically mean that the paranormal case is proven. There is a gulf in between. Indeed, the SPR report’s appendices, written by critics, go some way to demolishing the case carefully built up by the Solomons. Perhaps the massive amounts of material collected should be seen as performance art, in the way that crop circles are clearly regarded by their (usually) anonymous practitioners, rather than as clear evidence for post-mortem survival.

This is actually a slightly updated paperback version - the original hardback was published in 1999. It mentions the spread of Scole-like circles, so perhaps more convincing material will be collected in time, including some genuine attempts at cross-correspondences. In the meantime, this is a reasonable canter through the evidence, but should be read in conjunction with the SPR report which deals with the phenomena in a more scholarly manner, and includes a debate between proponents and sceptics.