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Notes written for a lecture to the SPR on "The Morning-After Effect"

Arthur Ellison’s elevation of bowl of flowers. Eminent Professor refused to believe anything happened. Another when Matthew Manning dropped the reading of a voltmeter by 30%, and one scientist, now a Univ Prof at a South of England University stamped out and said: there must be a normal explanation.

Levitation experiment bowl of flowers — audience chanting OM. Prof of Physics claimed to have seen nothing. Small electromagnetic levitator concealed in the locked shallow table drawer

In his introduction to The Phenomena of Materialisation, Schrenck-Notzing given several examples of immediate denials:

“The Spiritist will in accordance with his religious habit of thought only retain that which he regards as essential, and his fancy will travel the old road of supplementing it. But in the same way the rooted associations of a determined opponent will render valueless an experiment which is successful in the wider sense, i.e. which contradicts his negative conviction so soon as the above-mentioned failure of memory sets in. Without hesitation he will unconsciously fill up the gaps of memory in his own way. He will see fraud where none exists, just as the believing spiritist will see manifestation of spirits where there are nothing but conjuring tricks.”

He cites the case of an eminent psychologist who had observed Eusapia Palladino in Schrenck’s presence assert that during the well known phenomenon of the inflation of her dress, he had seen a black rod manipulated by her feet, in order to pull forward some object with the help of a hook attached to the rod. This despite the fact that Schrenck was not only closely observing her but holding the medium before, during and after the sitting. Another observer was entirely convinced that Palladino wore an iron sole on her left shoe so that she could withdraw her foot without detection, leaving a heavy weight resting on the foot of the relevant controller. Numerous and detailed observations of the medium have not substantiated this hypothesis, Schrenck dryly observes.

Another investigator, some months after the sitting claimed that Palladino had only been examined over her dress, whereas the written record prepared by another scientist immediately after the sitting gave an accurate account of her examination ‘over her bare body’, in conformity with the statements of other witnesses.”

This is not something confined to sceptics. As Schrenck noted “The spiritist will in accordance with his religious habit of thought only retain that which he regards as essential, and his habit will travel the old road of supplementing it. But in the same way the rooted associations of a determined opponent will render valueless an experiment. Which is successful in the wider sense, i.e. which contradicts his negative convictions so soon as the above-mentioned failure of memory sets in. Without hesitation, he will unconsciously fill up the gaps of memory in his own way. He will see fraud where none exists, just as the believing spiritist will see manifestations of spirits where there are nothing but conjuring tricks.

It takes a brave and perceptive person not simply to acknowledge this tendency in all of us, but to publicly confess his folly in having allowed himself to be misled by it. One such was the great Charles Richet. In his address to the Society in July 1899, he marvelled how twenty years accumulation of evidence of the existence of various psychic faculties had been met with persistent incredulity; and he found that his own experience explains the phenomenon... His studies in this field since the early 1870s had led him to observe certain facts of lucidity — that is, clairvoyance, of telepathy and premonition — facts denied and ridiculed on every side, so much so that he had not pushed independence of mind so far as go believe them. “I deliberately shut my eyes to phenomena which lay plain before me, and rather than discuss them, I chose the easier path of denying them altogether.” And here he publicly begged Sir William Crookes’ pardon for having mocked at what was called spiritism. Richet, unable to escape fully the consequences of his investigations, and desperate to find anything which could be safely fitted into accepted phenomena, then invented an explanation which did not deserve to survive. But, as he later found when dealing with strange physical phenomena, “the unlearned deny them; the learned exclude them from their text books.” Richet describes how over a period of some twenty years he was periodically seized with negative convictions of such intensity that “scarcely a fortnight after witnessing the experiments with Eusapia Palladino” — experiments which had totally convinced him of their genuineness, “I had persuaded myself that there had been nothing beyond fraud and illusion.”

A more recent example of this, amounting to a public recantation, arose some 20 years ago with Professor John Taylor’s repudiation of what five years earlier he had satisfied himself that the so-called Geller effect had demonstrated that the scientifically impossible can sometimes occur.

Here we have the reverse experience. Whereas Richet, a Nobel Laureate of great eminence in his field, was willing to brave the derision of his contemporaries by steadfastly repudiating the morning-after effect, howsoever long-delayed, Taylor was not. Only by allowing its ostensible triumph was he able to regain the peer respect his ego, or his academic position demanded. Thus we have a combination of two quite different elements: one is the rejection syndrome, which is the psychological equivalent of the physiological rejection mechanism employed as a protective device by the body in countering the invasion of an alien transplanted organ. Both are autonomic, involuntary. The psychological reaction protects a belief system, or a prejudice — which simply means a pre-existing conviction. And the stronger that is, the more deeply embedded, the more vigorous will be the rejection, and the more likely it will be that the subject resorts to irrational defences of his conduct. In the case of psychical research, it is often an a priori objection to the phenomenon in question: that it is inherently impossible and hence a waste of time bothering with it; or it must have been a delusion, or a fraud, no matter how potent the evidence to the contrary.

The second element is more economic and sociological, and it is what inhibits most parapsychologists from venturing beyond the limits of the human psyche into the occult realms of survival. In an acute form it is illustrated by he current dilemma facing William Bengston. Bengston is a respectable Professor of Sociology at a respectable American University, but for some years has devoted his spare time to investigating the effect of hands-on healing on mice. Following his protocol, various collaborators in different medical institutions have shown in replicated experiments that mice can be cured of cancer, and remain immune to further injections of carcinogenic substances that would normally kill them. There is therefore a reasonable prospect that a vaccine derived from their stored blood or serum might prove efficacious in human beings, offering out of hope of a cheap, mass cure for at least the commonest cancers.

However, every institution and individual whose co-operation would be required to set the requisite research in motion has recoiled with horror and declined to have anything to do with it. This is partly because the discovery of a cheap and effective remedy for cancer would spell disaster for the thousands of research workers in the field, and seriously affect the economic fortunes of the drug companies funding most of the research — that’s the economic side — and partly because mere association with a vaccine produced indirectly from a totally unorthodox healing system would be fatal to academic standing and peer respect. And this applies to those who have already gone so far as to help conduct experiments which have proved outstandingly successful.

The difficulty of disentangling the socio-economic from the psychological aspects of the rejection syndrome are obvious. But we may not realise how all-pervasive the syndrome is. Our founding fathers commended us to undertake research “without presupposition”. It is better known today as “prejudice”. However, we are all of us composed of presuppositions. They are a necessary tool of existence, to say nothing of intellectual discussion. It is not something which afflicts and limits only our opponents. I confess to a strong prejudice against astrology, phrenology and palmistry, and I will counter what purports to be evidence in favour of these scientific heresies with greater vigour, scepticism and heat than I would evidence of a haunting or a communication from a dead relative — and that is because I have become conditioned to what I perceive as an impressive weight of evidence to suggest that such things are commonplace, everyday experiences. So my critical faculties are tamed and conditioned in a way that a totally novel and unprecedented claim would not allow.

That the problem of rejection is of more than psychological interest would be immediately apparent to anyone who is familiar with its consequences for scientific progress. Richet in his Thirty Years of Psychical Research eighty years ago amusingly listed a series of major discoveries all of which had been rejected with contumely as impossible, since none fitted the accepted paradigm, that is, the collection of prejudices ossified into the limitations of the then-prevailing belief system. It has been done since, and quite often, most recently by Richard Milton in Forbidden Science. One would have thought that those engaged in the process of scientific discovery would have been sufficiently familiar with this history to have embraced a little humility when exposed to unfamiliar events or evidence which affronts their convictions.

I have, of course, cited rather extreme examples of a phenomenon which in less dramatic forms is common to us all. The expression: exceptional claims require exceptional evidence, or variations on that theme, raises the question: when does an exceptional claim become less so, so much less so that it should no longer require exceptional evidence. I know that if I buy a quantity of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal, and mix them together in certain proportions, I will produce an explosive mixture called gunpowder — and in the days when these substances were freely available at chemists, I did so, to my great joy, and with startling consequences for many in the neighbourhood. But having mastered the proportions and demonstrated the results, it was no longer necessary for me or anyone else to argue about the efficacy of the experiment, or to require interminable repetitions in blind or double blind conditions: it was an established fact.

But similar demonstrations — not, it must be confessed, with the same sort of regularity, uniformity and predictability as characterise the making of gunpowder, but conforming to the strictest disciplines of scientific inquiry nonetheless — have met with hostility and derision for well over a century. And despite ever-increasing experimental rigour and statistical sophistication, resistance is as strong as it was 120 years ago — stronger, indeed, among professional scientific practitioners.

Underlying this rejection syndrome, whether exercised before or after confrontation with disturbing evidence or argument, is a problem which lies at the heart of psychical research, but which has been given all too little conscious recognition: the canons of evidence. What should constitute acceptable evidence of the paranormal? How far is it legitimate to differentiate on the basis of our particular boggle threshholds between the nature and levels of evidence required for Aspect A as distinct from Aspect B? That is to say, my claim to demonstrate that the moon is actually composed of green cheese would clearly require a higher level of evidence than my insistence that some people have been able to read the minds of absent persons. The former would be rejected on a priori grounds, and few of us would trouble to listen any further. The latter has been so commonly observed and demonstrated, with such a wealth of well-attested examples, and is so frequently the currency of everyday gossip, that we would hardly be expected to elaborate. Yet the reaction of a collection of mid-Nineteenth century savants would place in the Green Cheese category arguments that we would be able to photograph bones in human bodies, cultivate bacteria in test tubes, listen to music while travelling at 60 miles an hour in a horseless carriage, transport ourselves bag and baggage at 500 miles an hour across the oceans above the clouds, view our distant spouses while examining a gadget strapped to our wrists … and so on.

The first conclusion must be that the canons of evidence depend on the philosophic mores at the time. An audience of Buddhists would require different, and some would say lower, standards to be convinced of some paranormal phenomenon because they have been preconditioned by the intellectual climate of their surroundings and religion to accept much of it as unremarkable and normal, just as we have been acclimatised to reject it as alien and absurd. That alone makes it impossible to formulate standards immune to the fluctuations of fashionable beliefs. But this poses the traditional issue of defining an elephant: we know one when we see one. Likewise we recognise persuasive evidence when we come across it, although we may have very different views about the manner in which it should be interpreted or what conclusions to draw from it.

Thus the famous Philip experiment, in which a group of earnest sitters at a séance tried for several months to conjure up a wholly fictitious entity which would respond intelligently to their questions and confirm his spurious historical biography, is widely regarded as evidence that the collective energies or wishes of a group can produce psychokinetic effects, in the forms of raps and table-movement, and responses which confirm the historic details imposed upon the spurious phantom. But it might with equal logic although less credibly be attributable to a mischievous drop-in spirit playing along with the group, having read the minds of the participants. Most people would prefer the former interpretation until such time as the responses showed knowledge of some historic event or person which was unknown to any of the sitters, but subsequently proved veridical. Thus a different, and tougher, standard of evidence would be required, even though the existence of intelligent drop-in communicators in seances has been very well documented.

I am not alone in being the victim of the rejection syndrome, and the different evidential requirements that are associated with it. The problem, however, is not quite so formidable as it may seem, since many of the reasons given for rejection are logically illegitimate. Thus perhaps the commonest example of rejectionism in connection with mediumistic outpourings is the fact that what is transmitted does not at all accord with what the critic considers a deceased person would behave or say. The frivolity of the atmosphere in which messages are purportedly transmitted is inconsistent with our expectations of gravitas, for instance. More subtly, if a medium is bound hand and foot to a chair, sewn into a single piece garment after having been stripped naked and examined in all available orifices, and a figure appearing to be composed of papier mache appears above her, its resemblance to a crude cut-out of papier mache will suffice to certify its obvious fraudulence because spirits would not be likely to produce anything of the sort. Here we have our prior expectations overriding evidence which should suggest an alternative explanation, since no-one has produced any logical reason for supposing that spirits who want to find some way to manifest themselves or anyone else should not use substances available to us, and perhaps make a pretty commonplace job of it.

On a more prosaic level, criticisms are often based on our impression that spirits would do things differently from us. For example, it may be recalled that much was made of the fact that a series of recognisable hermetic symbols which appeared on a film strip during one of the sittings with the Scole Group must have been spurious because it looked as though they were the product of somewhat crude tracings from a number of such symbols to be found in a coffee-table publication. But if we assume, as we must, that the spirit informers had some reason for wishing us to see their handiwork, it follows that they would have to have adopted some method or other from which we could recognise their drawings. Any method would have been akin to one which we ourselves might employ. If not, there could be no evidence of any such drawings. But any method would have been equally susceptible to the same criticism. Now this has little to do with the morning-after syndrome, which is generally not susceptible to elimination or modification by rational argument; but it is to its more cunning sister: condemnation through faulty reasoning propelled by an expectation that failure by the supposed paranormal to conform to the rules and expectations of the normal is a good reason for rejection.

Sidgwick, our worthy founder, gave an address on the Canons of Evidence in our subject in 1889. He argued, not unfairly, that where we are faced with two competing improbables: the non-conforming phenomenon itself which is deemed inherently improbable, and the honesty and integrity of the attesters, we should operate some sort of scale. The more improbable the phenomenon, the more rigorous the evidential requirements, especially where that most improbable of all phenomena, physical materialisation of spirit forms, is claimed to be genuine. Whatever the philosophical merits of this inevitably subjective yardstick, it accords with common sense. In the light of what we have discovered during the intervening 115 years, it is perhaps time to review the whole subject.


The Morning-After Effect by Montague Keen
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