Friday, 28 February 2020

Whither the Society for Psychical Research?

Dr Leo Ruickbie’s editorial in Issue 92 of the Society for Psychical Research’s magazine Paranormal Review, which was published recently, seeks to stimulate a debate on the direction the Society should take.  Currently, as he puts it, the organisation ‘stands on one side of a bridge into the unknown.’  Prompted by Lew Sutton’s account in the magazine of the home circle he has been running for several years in Devon, Leo begins by looking at the role of the SPR in a changing paranormal landscape.  Lew’s project, which Leo characterises as ‘citizen science’, is the sort of thing the SPR used to do itself, along with such activities as thought transference experiments, surveys, and other forms of investigation that by and large it no longer conducts.  This observation leads Leo to muse on the role of the SPR and how it can maintain its relevance.

He notes that the SPR is being squeezed on two fronts: from below, by the proliferation of ghost-hunting groups tackling the kinds of cases that at one time would have been the sole province of the SPR; and from above, by academia engaging in (though still not as much as one might wish) the sort of controlled experimentation the SPR also used to do.  Both sets publish, organise meetings, network – in short undertake what the SPR has always done.  Consequently, on one side the SPR’s Spontaneous Cases Committee has a reduced role in active investigation; while on the other the SPR’s role in research is mainly focused on facilitating academics’ projects through its dedicated research funds (out of which only a limited number of grants are awarded annually), publishing papers and providing a venue for lectures.  So, how should the SPR respond to challenges posed by these two currents?

Looking at how members receive information, Leo refers to the SPR’s active programme of events, but notes these reach only a small number of attendees, and not many extra through recordings.  He does mention the SPR’s website and its social media presence, but despite expanding content on the website, in the grand scheme of things their reach is fairly limited and members are not guaranteed to look at them.  What they do see is its magazines, the Journal and Paranormal Review.  As Leo says, for many members, those publications are the SPR, but they are actually quite limited in what they can communicate considering the wide range of SPR activities.  There is an opportunity for the Society to do more with what it has, Leo argues, even if it is not leading research itself.  He ends by asking if the SPR needs to debate its purpose and develop a strategy for the future, requesting members to get in touch with ideas (and I am sure he would welcome the constructive thoughts of non-members as well).

SPR membership has been increasing in recent years, but Leo’s question asking about the future direction of the Society is highly pertinent.  Unfortunately I am not certain what the answers are.  The spontaneous cases side is probably the easiest to address, with the Spontaneous Cases Committee being more proactive than it is at present.  There are signs of this, but more could be done to carry out investigations in a manner that would set a benchmark for others, particularly those who follow what they see on television shows.  The experimental side is more problematic.  When reading old issues of the Society’s Journal and Proceedings, with experiments being conducted in the Society’s offices, I have thought how nice it would be to have work undertaken there now.  But for a variety of reasons such efforts by and large moved into university departments.

So could the Society be more active in promoting what it does do?  Leo is correct in saying the SPR’s publications only cover a narrow range of the Society’s activities.  But it would be simplistic to conclude the answer is to increase the volume of its own print publications.  The Journal and Paranormal Review are expensive to produce, and apart from a few individual and institutional subscriptions only reach members.  A hint (I think) in the editorial of a possible future initiative is the reference to commercial publishing, preferably self-financing.  We have had many books based on SPR material in the past.  These include SPR-published pamphlets, and one-off books and series from commercial publishers, for example the G Bell & Sons volumes in 1937-9 and the Heinemann books edited by Brian Inglis to commemorate the SPR’s centenary in 1982.  Resurrecting a publishing programme is an idea that has come up from time to time, but somehow never comes to fruition, mainly it seems because it is difficult to make much money from serious books on paranormal subjects.  That was the reason for the failure of the Athlone Press series edited by John Beloff in the late 1990s.  However, if a new venture were successful it would be an ideal way to promote the subject and generate some income.

Yet while a publishing programme will have some impact in assisting the SPR to raise its profile and is worth reconsidering, it is not the entire answer.  After all, a similar function is being fulfilled by the SPR’s Psi Encyclopedia, and while it is a valuable source of reliable information and is well-regarded, it cannot be said to have been a game-changer in psychical research education.  I agree that the SPR needs to leverage what it has now, such as seeing more from those researchers who receive money from it.  For an organisation with research in the title we ought to be spending more on it, but we live in a world of finite resources and lab research is expensive (especially when you have universities insisting on the inclusion of generous overheads in grant applications).  Recipients’ results could definitely be disseminated by them to a greater extent than they are to publicise what the SPR does to support research.

The alternative to formal institutional research is the citizen science approach exemplified by Lew Sutton.  I suspect there is a reservoir of interest among members waiting to be tapped, if only it could be directed by those with the necessary expertise and bearing in mind that, to achieve results the scientific community will consider, it needs to be done properly.  The SPR could act as a clearing house for results, publishing and archiving them as appropriate.  A product of the Buckmaster bequest, in addition to the Psi Encyclopedia, is the SPR’s Psi Open Data project, billing itself as ‘an open repository for the storage of parapsychological and psychical research data.’  It is adding value to the academic research process, and perhaps this approach could be extended to a wider range of well-conducted citizen science.

There are of course practical obstacles, not only financial but in terms of labour.  Those who would be qualified to oversee such efforts, and exercise quality control, are busy with their own work, and this would be a considerable commitment.  It is certainly worth discussing, however.  We may never see the heroic levels of activity achieved by the early SPR, but there is much potential over and above what it is doing currently, and an expansion of its remit would a major contribution to the subject.  If it stays on its present course I don’t think the future for the SPR is bad, but it will not be fulfilling its potential.  I shall follow the debate Leo has started with interest, and I hope it produces both good ideas and offers to implement them.