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In the November/December issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, organ of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Professor Kenneth Oldfield wrote an article which has been exposed as typical of the manner in which dedicated skeptics debunk paranormal claim: by a combination of misrepresentation, suppression, distortion and dependence on the trust of uncritical disbelievers unlikely to wish to check the facts for themselves. The Skeptical Inquirer declined to publish any criticisms.

The following is a digest of a paper published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (October 2002) by Montague Keen.

Oldfield, a Professor of Public Administration in the University of Illinois, was concerned to expose the naivety of philosophy Professor Arthur Miller who had confessed himself unable to explain away the evidence for apparent posthumous communication from the spirit of Edgar Vandy, but equally unable to accept the notion of survival. He had criticised hardened skeptics for their unwillingness to examine this sort of evidence, and postulated some sort of hiatus period between apparent and total death during which communication by telepathy might be possible. However, Oldfield not only poured justifiable scorn on a theory which ran counter to so much evidence, but proceeded to ridicule the Vandy case as evidence for survival, or of anything paranormal.

Published by the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in 1957, the Vandy case has long been regarded as among the most impressive pieces of evidence for survival. It concerns the circumstances in which a young and brilliant inventor met his death one hot summer’s afternoon in August 1933 in the swimming pool of private estate in Sussex, England. His companion followed him into the pool in time to see him floundering. In vain he sought to pull him out, but resuscitation was too late, so the inquest found.

Vandy’s brothers, desperate to find out exactly how the death occurred and whether anyone was to blame, consulted a number of mediums. They took great care to make their visits and identities anonymous, and took full records. The name of the deceased was never mentioned. False names and addresses were given. The records were immediately annotated and then locked away. Twenty years later they were unearthed by a younger brother and made the subject of two detailed, critical analyses, one by Kathleen Gay, who published the JSPR account; the second by the eminent philosopher and psychical researcher, Professor C. D. Broad. Both were satisfied that the messages could only have had a paranormal origin.

Oldfield’s attack on Miller and the Vandy case was based on his contention that all the “hits” recorded by the mediums could be explained by cold readings, luck, preparatory research or common parlour tricks. The case for cold readings immediately falls apart from the proxy sitting which the Rev Charles Drayton Thomas, who knew nothing of the case, had with Mrs. Osborne Leonard after having received a written request from one of the Vandy brothers whom he had never met. Despite this, she spoke of giddiness involving a fall, a tragic accident, and that no-one was to blame, and at a later sitting, of which Oldfield was clearly unaware because details of it emerged only after Mrs. Gay’s report, she gave exact calculations and minute measurements associated with the deceased man, and stated that there were piles of papers kept in a kind of flat book form, some with brown and others with black covers. These books, the existence of which was unknown to anyone at the time, were discovered 36 years later when Vandy’s possessions were removed from a furniture depository. Another striking piece of evidence which remained unknown and unconfirmed for many years came from another medium who spoke of a machine which could be used to make sound in greater volume. This was a references (of which there were a great many by other mediums as well) to a secret invention by Vandy called an Electroline, only a prototype of which existed which, it was later recalled, could have been used not just for the production of letters through holes in a perforated sheet but musical sounds, as in a pianola machine.

The cold reading theory equally falls flat in the face of the transmission from mediums of information unknown to the brothers, but all of which proved correct: they included the facts that Edgar’s tongue was injured; that although he did not play tennis or possess a racquet, he had been pictured holding a racquet; that the sitter’s elder brother was wearing something belonging to the deceased; that the Electroline machine had red and green lights, and that someone called Mac had helped to correct a maladjustment in the position of lines of lettering produced by the machine.

A third fatal blow to the cold reading theory is that a great many correct statements were given independently by different mediums, none of whom could have had any normal knowledge. There were multiple independent statements of the following: Vandy had an old identifying scar on his face; his death was associated with water; there were some bruises; he fell on his head; no-one saw him fall; Vandy’s spirit was anxious to acquit anyone else of blame; he did not take his own life; the (Electroline) machine ‘comes up in print’; there’s a funny thing like a thin line, then an arm comes up and projects about half a dozen letters; a lot of wires and machinery and wheels; there were plates associated with photography; suggestive of a printing process — he keeps peeling papers off; something to do with lithography; machinery going very rapidly...

If there remained any doubt of the absurdity of the cold reading explanation, considering that none of the mediums had even a hint of who died and how, or of his prototype invention, we have the accurate statement of the first medium, that the notetaker owned a shop Vandy patronized: “He used to go into your shop for a chat, walk in and pick up an article as if he were familiar with the place”. “You were with him on his last day.” “He’s showing me a little gap in his mouth as if a tooth were missing above informed. There were more than a dozen other statements, several of them only later verified, of similar accuracy.

Although Oldfield argues that preparatory research by the mediums might explain the evidence, he provides no evidence in support of this because none exists. There could have been no opportunity for preparatory research when the sittings and sitters were anonymous. As for luck, could luck account for descriptions which would enable an independent observer, with no knowledge of Vandy, the circumstances of his death, his interests and achievements, to present a fairly accurate composite picture of all of them?

An attempt to equate incorrect with correct statements, and hence to disregard the latter makes it possible to argue that Miss Campbell, one of the mediums, was wrong to say that Edgar had a cigarette case in the base of a tidy drawer in a location in his room, when it turned out to be something which merely looked like a cigarette case, although it was in a tidy drawer in a correctly described location. To mark this as an error is like equating the accuracy of a student who gives the date of the battle of Waterloo as 1066 with that of someone who says in was fought in May 1815 when the action took place in June; or suggesting that an incorrect name entitles one to disregard a statement that the deceased was connected with a machine for lithographic reproduction. It is neither a logical nor a legitimate form of criticism to ignore the use by mediums of laymen’s terms to describe a complex piece of novel machinery none of them could ever have known about or seen.

Can ignorance excuse Professor Oldfield’s cavalier disregard of the facts? It is known that, before writing his article, he went to the trouble of obtaining the full text of the original 1957 article from the SPR, and had read through Broad’s analysis, so he knew what he was doing. Yet he bluntly contradicts Professor Miller’s statement that the psychics had revealed significant details about Vandy and his invention, and asserts with disregard for the truth that the SPR report “clearly shows otherwise”. He then goes on to rebuke Miller for failing to consult the SPR report and for producing a paper “falling well short of even elementary standards of scholarship common among refereed journals”.

Why should a prominent academic, writing in a journal in which dedication to objective rational investigation is often cited as a distinguishing feature and an invariable rule, have suppressed or denied so much evidence inconsistent with his reasons for dismissing the Vandy case? A glaring illustration of this denial appears in Oldfield’s reference to Vandy’s work as an inventor. First comes a clear hint that the Electroline may never have existed. Oldfield subtly trades on the reader’s faculty of disbelief: “Just before he [Edgar] died he supposedly [my italics] designed an elaborate ‘Electroline Drawing Machine’ Because Vandy worked in great secrecy nobody else knew about this contraption… Lectroline was never patented, so there is no public record of its existence.”

The SPR report makes it absolutely clear that the existence of machine, and the trials and problems associated with its testing and financing, were known not only to his two brothers but to his cousin in whose office the machine was housed, and to ‘Mac’ the lithographic expert, to Vandy’s assistant, Mr. Burke and to the man who tried to rescue him from drowning. A full page photograph of the machine appeared in the SPR Report. It states that the machine was dismantled and taken to the Science Museum after Edgar’s death. Yet a copy of the entire report was sent by the SPR to Oldfield, whose suggestion that the nearest any of the mediums got to identifying the machine — which was a major part of Vandy’s life — were references to ‘machinery’, ‘wireless’or ‘machine’. This was untrue. There were quite detailed accounts of the functions and parts of the machine.

Admitting that he knew nothing about the SPR and its records of possible post-mortem communications, Oldfield posted a message on the Society’s website asking whether anyone could cite any example concerning a communicator long since dead. He was directed to the Runolfsson case, where an entity who claimed to have died in a storm in 1879 communicated with an Icelandic medium in 1937. The case was published by two leading researchers in the Journal of the American SPR in 1975. Oldfield blithely dismisses the case as one “which does not meet the evidentiary standards common among scientific journals”. He gives not a single reason or illustration to support this contention. In fact the supposed communicator gave the medium his full name, age at death, name of wife, address in Iceland, where he had set out on his last journey, the name of the rock when he rested when drunk before being swept out to sea and drowned by a storm whose date he gave, the date when the remnants of his body were found, and the name of the person in whose house they would find the thigh bone washed up at a location he named. He even gave the name of the Church where records would be found to confirm his name and age. All were verified. Not until sixty years later was the thigh bone discovered bricked up in a wall of the house he had identified.

The case provides a second excellent illustration of the methods adopted by the resolute skeptic to debunk the paranormal.


The Unmasking of Professor Kenneth Oldfield.
An Exposure the Skeptical Inquirer Sought to Evade
by Montague Keen
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