Thursday, 29 April 2010

Weighing the Soul - Comments on ‘Body and Soul’, by Paul Chambers

Weighing the Soul - Comments on ‘Body and Soul’, by Paul Chambers

When I tried to post some comments on the Fortean Times message board concerning an article called ‘Body and Soul’, by Paul Chambers, I was constantly thrown back to the profile update section. I thought that I would place them here instead, in an elaborated form.

Paul Chambers’ article on efforts to weigh the soul by Duncan MacDougall and others [FT262, May 2010] contained some omissions and errors. To begin with a popular and readily-available book, there is no mention of Len Fisher’s chapter on the subject in his volume with the giveaway title Weighing the Soul: The Evolution of Scientific Beliefs (2004). Fisher suggests an explanation for the weight reduction MacDougall found at the point of death: convection caused by the body cooling – precision balances being sensitive to air currents – which although not persuasive, could have at least been mentioned by Chambers. Interestingly, but not significantly, Fisher and the FT article both have photographs of Fairbanks Imperial Grocer’s Scales which are slightly different to each other (Fisher’s one also appears on the cover of the US edition of his book).

The Metaphysical Magazine (‘A monthly review devoted to science, psychology, philosophy, metaphysics and occult subjects’) for April 1907 (p.377) picked up on the press reports and included a short article on MacDougall’s efforts, entitled 'Weighing Human Souls'. The author had no doubt that MacDougall’s findings were accurate and thought that they supported the contention that the soul was “a material substance of a sublimated character”, but decided, in less esoteric terms, that weight loss might be due simply to the exhalation of breath as the lungs collapsed. Again, Chambers does not include this suggestion, even if it is about as plausible as convection.

Chambers does cite Mary Roach on weighing the soul, but rather than read the chapter in her book Spook (published as Six Feet Over in the UK) he has relied on it as reproduced on a website called Lost magazine. Unfortunately this is not the complete chapter, but has sections left out. A reference to the book would have been more useful than to an expurgated version, even if the latter was easier to find. One of the sections not in the online version, but which is included in Roach’s book, relates to Lewis Hollander’s experiments with sheep, which showed a small but temporary increase in weight at the moment of death. This work is mentioned by Chambers, as Hollander’s paper in the Journal of Scientific Exploration is available online. But he does not include Masayoshi Ishida’s 2009 paper ‘A New Experimental Approach to Weight Change Experiments at the Moment of Death with a Review of Lewis E. Hollander’s Experiments on Sheep’, also in JSE, which subjects Hollander’s work to a mathematical analysis and finds problems with his procedures and results. While Fortean Times is not the place for a technical discussion, a reference to this later examination would have helped to contextualise the apparent anomaly presented by Hollander’s research.

Chambers mentions, in passing, experiments carried out by H Lav. Twining and gives Hereward Carrington’s Laboratory Investigations into Psychic Phenomena as a source. According to Chambers, Twining found no change in weight at death during trials in which he killed thirty mice. In an appendix to his book, however, Carrington reprints extracts from a letter he had received from Twining (pp.243-5) in which Twining says that “after some thirty experiments I found that the loss of weight was caused by the expulsion of moisture at the instant of death.” There was only no loss when the container was hermetically sealed with the mouse inside. Carlos Alvarado describes these findings in a letter in the March 1980 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Fisher discusses them too but questions whether the loss of moisture would be that rapid, in either humans or mice. Chambers cannot have read any of these accounts to conclude erroneously that Twining claimed that no change in weight occurred (Chambers is not just referring to the trials with sealed containers).

Another piece of research that would have been of interest to FT’s readers was conducted at Addenbrooke’s hospital by Bernard Carr (better known these days as an astrophysicist) in 1969-70, and reported in the Proceedings of the SPR in 2008. This used sleeping patients rather than dying ones, but with the addition of hypnosis and meditation which might induce astral separation. Results were inconclusive and not written up at the time, but it was a useful attempt to update the original approach in a more ethical age.

Towards the end of his article, Chambers baldly refers to a mouse experiment mentioned in the New York Times on 13 March 1907 and states that he could find no other details of the work, but does not say what was in the newspaper on that day. The article on 13 March quotes an unnamed “eminent physiological chemist” describing experiments by anonymous German students. They, some unspecified years previously, had experimented on mice and found no weight loss when the animals were in a sealed container, whereas those in an open vessel did show loss of weight. The chemist asserted that a gas was given off at the point of death, and concluded that, as MacDougall was effectively replicating an open vessel with his human guinea pigs, gas was the factor in his experiments also, the weight loss being on the same scale as with the mice. These experiments sound so similar to Twining’s that one wonders whether he was the “German students” the chemist had in mind, or was even the ‘chemist’ himself. There is uncertainty over the date of Twining’s experiments. Chambers says it was 1915, but that was the year he published his book The Physical Theory of the Soul, and his experiments occurred earlier. The letter to Carrington is dated 12 September 1933, and although he reprints part of this and short extracts from Twining’s book, no date is given for the experiments.

Chambers gives a number of references from NYT in his list of sources up to 15 March 1907, but the story was alluded to after that date, culminating with a rather nice poem by Walter Beverley Crane on 21 October beginning “I cannot weigh my soul to-day, it is too heavy laden”. Correspondence in the newspaper was generally satirical in tone, and an entertaining article by ‘Diogenes’ on 4 August 1907 explored the implications of a compulsory quantitative analysis of the soul, in a society in which every member had to carry a “soul card” open to inspection, showing their foibles to anyone who asked to see it. The implication is that society would not be happier for such a facility.

Of course the function of FT is to entertain as well as inform, but Chambers’ article (surprisingly given first place in the magazine as the cover story) could have been strengthened with a little more primary research. It isn’t particularly long and there would have been space to expand on the post-MacDougall work. Weighing the soul is a fascinating subject, but its treatment here doesn’t do it justice.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Radio review - The Witch of Beacon Hill

This radio review appeared in The British & Irish Skeptic, Vol. 3, No. 5, September/October 1989, p.25. For some reason, perhaps to save a few lines, the published version ran several paragraphs together. Apart from reinstating the paragraph breaks, this is as printed then.

‘Margery’ revisited

The Witch of Beacon Hill, by Paul M. Levitt. Saturday Night Theatre, Radio 4, 30 September 1989.

The Witch of Beacon Hill purports to relate the events surrounding the investigation by the magazine Scientific American of the well known medium Mina Crandon, better known as ‘Margery’, in 1924. The best known member of the examining committee was Harry Houdini, and the play concentrates on the clash between him and Mina and her husband LeRoi, a noted Boston surgeon.

This was presumably done for dramatic emphasis, but as a result a misleading impression was conveyed. It was suggested at the end of the play that Mina won the battle with Houdini (though clearly by fraudulent means), and thereby achieved universal acceptance as being genuine. This was far from true: the phenomena she produced continued to be debated hotly. Rival interpretations were never reconciled, but merely faded away due to the new emphasis on laboratory experimentation in the 1930s, and the death of the protagonists (LeRoi in 1939 and Mina, by then an alcoholic, in 1941).

By concentrating on Houdini to the almost total exclusion of the role played by his colleagues, the listener is left with the impression that they did not play a significant part. This was not true. Also, no indication was given that the Scientific American investigation was one of a series carried out on Margery. Her fate in the play seemed to hang on Houdini's assessment, whereas in reality verdicts of fraud, including Houdini's, though numerous were always circumstantial. Whatever the outcome, she always bounced back.

Because this was not a documentary, it was difficult to know where attested facts stopped and the author's imagination began. For example, although rumours about Mina's sexual conduct circulated at the time, and her affair with Bird (the Scientific American's associate editor who was responsible for persuading the magazine's proprietor to put up the prize for which Margery was tested) seemed plausible, it was harder to believe that she attempted to seduce Houdini.

It was a pity that because of the concentration on Houdini and his particular motives for taking a keen interest in life after death, the furore over the famous thumbprints was totally ignored, occurring as it did from 1926 onwards. This scandal makes amusing reading, effectively killing scientific interest in Margery. The prints were supposed to belong to Margery's control ‘Walter’, but were attributed to Mina's dentist by her detractors in the Boston SPR, provoking claim and counterclaim which said more about the state of American psychical research than the merits of the Margery mediumship.

What were the results of the Margery episode? Basically there were two. Firstly, it hardened, although it did not cause, the rift in the American SPR which led to the formation of the Boston splinter group. Secondly and more importantly, J.B. and Louisa Rhine had attended some of Margery's séances, and were so concerned at the damage that was being caused to psychical research by the resulting internecine warfare that they decided to retreat into the laboratory, where results would be more clear cut. As it happened, interpretation there was just as difficult as it had been in the seance room, but at the time it must have seemed the only reasonable approach.

Alas the play failed to capture the pivotal nature of the Margery episode, although a flavour of the acrimony between the participants did emerge. It made a good radio drama, and any verdict on the play's value must hinge on one's attitude towards verisimilitude in fiction. The moral ambivalence of the Crandons was convincingly portrayed, so that it can be understood sixty years later why such passionate feelings were aroused by the case. It was a pity that the requirements of a good play and the demands of historiography did not coincide.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Untitled Radio Review - Invasion of the Mindsnatchers

This short piece appeared in the SPR Newsletter, No. 28, January 1989. I had been in the Society for Psychical Research for less than two years and sent it in both because I felt strongly about the radio show, but no doubt because I also wanted to start to make a mark on the organisation.

Why the editor, Susan Blackmore, accepted it is more difficult to understand. She said at the time that she was pleased to encourage a new contributor, but it may be that I was favoured because I had word-processed my copy, which saved her time; in her editorial she notes the publication’s new appearance, occasioned by her purchase of “an IBM PC compatible computer with WORD4 word processor.” This replaced the BBC micro with which she had produced earlier, rather more functional, issues. I no longer have my original, and the text below is as printed. The somewhat abrupt ending suggests that part of it may have been lopped off to fit the page.

Thirty-six SPR newsletters were published before being replaced by the Psi Researcher (with a new editor) in April 1991. These newsletters are not available in the SPR’s online library, which is a shame as they were generally lively and interesting. Sue and I were on the SPR Council together for a while, and meetings lost some of their colour when she left. She later became a Fellow of CSICOP, and is no long active in psychical research.

Radio review

It is fashionable to accuse the BBC of bias. For once I have to agree. The programme “Invasion of the Mindsnatchers” was an extended advertisement for CSICOP, The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, with no right of reply for anyone with an alternative viewpoint.

The scene is set by the Radio Times blurb: “Peter Evans attended CSICOP’s annual Conference in Chicago last month to investigate this paradox: How can the most scientifically and technologically advanced society in the world also be duped by warmed-up frauds from the nineteenth century?”

To a certain extent I sympathise with CSICOP’s aims and its criticisms of creationism, astrology and New Age cults. However, I have major reservations about this programme. It was not stated what was meant by “paranormal”. A wide variety of activities were lumped together indiscriminately and there was no mention of psychokinesis, poltergeists, precognition, clairvoyance or telepathy, to name a few areas in which serious research is taking place. Yet it was implied that these were included by default; worse, that only the credulous or foolish were interested in them. Despite the claim that CSICOP is unbiased, participants, including the presenter, repeatedly equated scepticism with rationalism and the paranormal with irrationalism. Both equations are suspect: The former because some sceptics are determined to condemn, a priori, phenomena which they have no way of knowing the validity of; the latter because, after superstition, pseudo-science, gullibility, self-deception and fraud have been taken into account, there is still a bedrock of evidence to which our rational faculties can be brought to bear.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Thought-Transference (or What?) in Birds

This capsule review appeared in Fortean Times No. 139, October 2000, p.57. For a while the magazine ran a sidebar in its review section called ‘Fortean Bookshelf’, in which “Each month FT revisits an out-of-print but still important classic.” Readers could send in brief accounts of books they felt had been neglected, and as at the time I was reading Edmund Selous’s Thought-Transference (or What?) in Birds, I thought this a good candidate as it did not seem to have been much mentioned in the seventy years since publication.  Selous was trying to account for the remarkable abilities of flocks of birds to move in a coordinated way, in a sense as a single organism. He spent many, many hours in the field watching birds’ behaviour in flocks, and described his observations in obsessive detail.

As well as being a noted, and prolific, naturalist, Selous (1857-1934) had joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1891 and his book was reviewed by W. H. Salter in the SPR’s Journal dated January 1932. His elder brother was explorer and hunter Frederick Selous, a model for Allan Quartermain, who led a life of African adventure in marked contrast to Edmund’s sedate existence (the Rhodesian Selous Scouts were named after him).  The book was later referred to in a Fortean Times article by David Hambling in September 2006 with the  title ‘Hive Minds’, in which he discusses the mechanisms – the (or What?) – by which birds actually do manage these amazing feats.  While commonplace now, psychical research involving animals was ground-breaking in 1931, and even if mistaken in his conclusions, Edmund Selous deserves an honoured place as a pioneer of what has come to be known as anpsi.

Thought Transference (or What?) in Birds

Edmund Selous

Constable and Company, London, 1931

At a time when interest in animals’ possible psychic abilities is high, it is a shame that Edmund Selous’s book, the result of almost 30 years’ field research, has been largely forgotten.

By noting apparent instances of synchronised activity without an external stimulus, he attempts to show that birds of various species seem to display instances of telepathy, or, rather, the working of a group mind. He speculates that humans too may once have had this ability, but lost it through the development of speech (though elsewhere he declares himself convinced by the evidence for telepathy in humans published by The Society for Psychical Research).

There are problems with Selous’s observational approach: it is possible that although he could not see an external stimulus, the birds could; and although he may have thought that they flew off simultaneously, movements could have been sequential, though too fast for the human eye to perceive. Despite these reservations, his work represents what was a groundbreaking approach to psi in a neglected part of the animal kingdom.