Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Some Reflections on ‘Some Reflections on the Loss and Return of a Small Harp’

In ‘Some Reflections on the Loss and Return of a Small Harp’, Paranormal Review, Issue 61, January 2012, pp.28-31, Robert A Charman discusses Dr Elizabeth Mayer’s experience of recovering her young daughter’s stolen harp through the offices of a dowser. This is to be found in her book Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind (2007), ‘The Harp that Came Back: My Journey Begins’. For Charman it is a compelling story and he concludes that “Given the unchallenged facts of this case it would seem reasonable to accept that the faculty of psi, or ESP, exists...”

Charman is not alone in his admiration. Lawrence LeShan thought highly enough of Mayer’s account to reprint it as a “case history” in A New Science of the Paranormal (2009). Jeffrey Krippal also discusses it in Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (2010), and continues: “The remotely viewed harp, after all, strongly suggested that consciousness is not bound to the brain or the body...” He assumes that the dowser viewed the harp remotely and gave accurate information to Mayer. Most recently, Russell Targ mentions it in passing in The Reality of ESP: A Physicist's Proof of Psychic Abilities (2012). Yet there is an evidential gap which it seems strange that its enthusiasts have failed to note. It can certainly be challenged, on rather obvious non-paranormal grounds.

So what happened? In December 1991, Elizabeth Mayer was an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her eleven-year old daughter Meg possessed a small valuable harp on which she had become an accomplished player. At some point during a Christmas concert in Oakland it was stolen. The police could not help, nor could instrument dealers across the country, the American Harp Society or CBS news, leaving the family frustrated and Meg disconsolate.

A friend suggested Mayer try dowsing as a last resort so the friend contacted the American Society of Dowsers and was given the telephone number of Harold McCoy, the Society’s president, who lived 2,000 miles away in Arkansas. Mayer rang McCoy and explained the situation. He said to wait a moment and he would see if the harp was still in Oakland. It was, he said, and he asked Mayer to send him a map of Oakland so that he could locate it for her.

The map was sent, and two days later McCoy telephoned Mayer, naming a specific street and giving the location there of the house in which he said the harp was being kept. She went to the police saying she had had a ‘tip’, but not unreasonably they said that they could not obtain a search warrant on vague information. With no other avenue open to her, Mayer fly posted the two blocks around the house, offering a reward for the harp’s return. She did not visit and challenge the occupier.

Three days later, she received a phone call from someone who said his next-door neighbour had the instrument. After some negotiations, she went to a car park at 10pm and retrieved it from a teenager. As she turned into her driveway with the harp safely secured she thought: “This changes everything”. Mayer finishes her account of how she recovered the harp and the confusion it engendered in her as she tried to rationalise what had happened with a quote from a friend at Berkeley: “Get over it and get some sleep, Lisby. As a statistician, I can promise you the odds that dowsing works are a lot greater than the odds that this could have been coincidence.”

It didn’t have to be coincidence though. Potentially the posters could have been seen by hundreds of people living in the area or passing through in the three days between them going up and Mayer receiving the call from the person who said his neighbour had the harp. Those people could have told others, so a large number of individuals who did not watch CBS news or read the American Harp Society newsletter would have heard that the owner was looking for the instrument, and offering a reward, always an incentive for news to travel. The possessor may even have heard about Mayer’s quest previously but not had an easy mechanism to contact her, one now provided by a telephone number on a poster.

The possibility that McCoy correctly dowsed the precise house where the harp was being kept has to be balanced against the possibility that the thief still had it, or had sold it locally, and someone in the know happened to see a poster and thought that the reward money available for its safe return was worth more than it would realise elsewhere; a harp which was so distinctive, having been custom-made, that it was perhaps effectively unsellable by the possessor. The posters were in a small area admittedly, but perhaps Mayer was just lucky. We can’t know.

Charman asks if this experience would have “changed everything” for the reader as it did for Mayer. No, it wouldn’t have for me. It may have done if the police had gone to the specified house and found the harp there, but they didn’t, which means that there is enough uncertainty to weaken the case. To see how leaky it actually is, it is worth examining the links in the chain from theft to recovery. Charman provides “four apparently indisputable facts:

1 That Meg’s small harp was stolen from a theatre in Oakland during a Christmas concert.
2 That some two months later, McCoy pinpointed the exact house where it was hidden.
3 That he achieved this feat from nearly 2,000 miles away.
4 That acting upon this information Dr Mayer was able to effect the safe return of the undamaged harp from that address.”

Of these, only the first can truly be said to be indisputable. Of the others, McCoy was certainly 2,000 miles away, but we do not know that he pinpointed the exact house. And Mayer did not effect the return of the harp from that address; she effected it from a Safeway car park. We only have McCoy’s word for it that the house was involved at all. There is nothing in this that says that he was a fake, of course. He may well have been sincere, and thought that the harp was at the place he specified. If the police had obtained a warrant, and not found the harp there, he might well have been genuinely surprised. But his sincerity does not mean that he was right. This was not a controlled test, in which dowsers tend to do badly.

Charman does not consider the possibility that the dowsing (or rather, McCoy’s remote viewing intuition using dowsing as a method) was not causally linked to the recovery of the harp. He wonders if we can spot a non-psi explanation that passed Mayer by – “Did she really miss something here that lets the sceptic off the psi hook?" – but the only counter-possibility he entertains is that McCoy in Arkansas might have known the thief and where he lived. He provides biographical details about McCoy which indicate that this was most unlikely, though it raises the issue of how unlikely something has to be before it is ruled out completely. He does not entertain the possibility that someone with knowledge of the harp saw a poster in the street and got in touch.

The episode was certainly convincing for Mayer, changing the way she looked at the world and sending her on an intellectual journey, but from the outside her experience is not nearly as compelling. It is interesting, certainly, and suggestive, but not of sufficient quality to stand on its own. The possibility that the house McCoy identified from a map in Arkansas had nothing to do with it, and the posters alone did the trick, is too plausible to take this case as particularly strong evidence for either dowsing or remote viewing.

The Paranormal Review is a quarterly publication of the Society for Psychical Research. See for further details.