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"A favourite method of the negative sceptic," wrote the late Paul Beard, "is to examine evidence which is many years old, and was observed by somebody else. He then invents some possible alternative explanation and looks around for supporting facts which might have been present. He does not produce any direct evidence to show that this alternative really took place. It remains speculation, and is unprovable. However, it cannot be shown that it could not have happened, so the sceptic claims that the factual evidence, the product of direct observation on the part of his predecessor, is unreliable."

Beard was one of the outstanding figures in psychical research and spiritualism. He lunched with me the day before the Society for Psychical Research staged its debate on the Scole Report and despite his great age — he was in his early nineties — and deafness, was keenly interested in what my colleagues and I had concluded from our two years' investigation of the Scole phenomena. He was critical equally of over-credulous spiritualists, with their tendency towards internecine dispute and readiness to accept mediumship of unreliable quality, as he was of those influential members of the SPR whose determination to apply the severest tests of authenticity for every manifestation, every phenomenon, condemned them to reject even the most impressive phenomena in blind obedience to what they mistakenly conceived to be rigorous standards of evidence.

I have previously given illustrations of this in relation to the momentous events which took place during the period of our investigation of the Scole Group, but (if only to show that this negative treatment was not confined to the Scole events) let me refer to the criticisms encountered by my report of a sitting with two people who had been impressed by their visit to Scole, and were resolved to see whether they could go one better: Margaret Wehling and Norbert Roth. This is not the place to describe in detail the remarkable range of physical phenomena which my wife and I experienced during the third of three sittings I had with them in 2000, and of which I gave hints in my last contribution (Winter 2001) to Spiritual Scientist, since I want to concentrate on only one of the events we experienced. This was the production of Polaroid film from a cheap Jaycam model.

The camera was bought by me, as was the cassette of ten films loaded into the camera before witnesses — in this case Professor David Fontana, one of the authors of the Scole Report, Maurice Grosse, chairman of the SPR's Spontaneous Cases Committee, and my wife. The lens of the camera was carefully sealed and marked with Velcro-tape by Maurice Grosse. Using the yellow ring-pull, David Fontana extracted the first film to prove that the camera was working properly, to confirm that the film would remain black since it could not have been exposed to light, and finally in order to check its serial number as a secure precaution against covert substitution.

The camera was taken to Mrs. Wehling's home where one of the rooms was prepared for a séance, aided by an Indian medium sitting alongside Margaret and Norbert, with the four investigators immediately behind them. In front of them I had erected a wall-to- wall plastic mesh screen. Virtually all the phenomena for the next couple of hours appeared to take place behind this screen. This was where we placed the camera, on a shelf against the rear wall. During the séance Margaret asked one of the spirit communicators to produce a picture. We heard the characteristic sound of a film being withdrawn from the camera. After the sitting, we found a clear, detailed abstract picture alongside the camera. Its serial number followed immediately that of the control we had earlier extracted manually, thus proving that no substitution had taken place. The sequence of events was precisely that which had been followed in two earlier sittings I had attended. The sole difference was that, this time, the camera was new, and had been totally under the control of the investigators, as was the cassette of films.

Many readers of Spiritual Scientist, perhaps rendered a trifle blasé by their own experiences of such marvels, may wonder why I should trouble them with the details of an event no more remarkable than what is said to be regularly experienced in physical circles. I will tell them. It is rare for such events to be conducted by critical experimenters rather than simply experienced by those for whom this is part of a belief system. It is rarer still for the evidence to be visible, permanent and inspectable, rather than dependent on subjective assertion, on fallible recollection of events taking place in the heightened emotional atmosphere of a darkened room. And it is verging on the unique to have such an experiment which, in its simplicity, enables the experimenter to boldly assert that there is no conceivable manner in which such a film could be produced normally, no matter how clever the illusionist. In other words, the control conditions were all that were required to obviate fraud.

When a report of this episode (as part of a far more extensive and detailed record of the investigation, was reviewed by experts, their reactions were instructive. One of them thought it unfair to ask him to judge the authenticity of what took place, because there was almost no end to the skill which modern magicians might employ to produce similar results, and he felt discomforted by a very detailed account I had given of the numerous, and increasingly improbable, series of steps which would have been required to produce the same effect normally — an account which necessarily highlighted the absurdity of any "normal" explanation. Another fretted over the inadequacy of the controls, the darkness, the fragility of the netting, the absence of details about its height, its distance from the sitters and degree of tautness. It was suggested that someone might have been able to make the picture after extracting it from the camera in the dark, and that in any case I ought to have had it examined by experts. The control conditions, I was sternly told, fell far short of the standards required by the SPR, or observed in the classic experiments in which Rudi Schneider and the like were tested back in the 1930s.

The fact that all of these suggestions were either irrelevant or absurd, or in some cases both, seemed not to have struck these critics. The evidence of one of the films produced in the preceding sitting showed clearly that the pictures were produced inside the camera, because the chemical gell which is spread over the surface as the film is extruded had covered only part of the plate, and it was that part which had the picture. (Precisely the same effect was apparent when I was conducting an experiment with an electrically-operated version of this Polaroid camera during the Scole Group's visit to the holiday home in Ibiza of Dr Hans Schaer in June 1997). As for getting expert evidence, what could the Polaroid laboratory technicians say, when approached, but that they dealt only in pictures produced from exposure to light. As far as they were concerned, a picture drawn from a Polaroid camera with its lens cap securely sealed, was outside their remit. Note that all the objections relating to the darkness, the netting, the absence of infra-red cameras etc., while they might conceivably have been relevant to establishing the authenticity of several of the other physical phenomena, like artistically bent forks, a couple of burn-holes in the netting, the deposit of coins in a begging bowl, the blowing up of balloons tossed at us, etc., had no bearing whatsoever on the appearance of the film.

It is not without significance that the most venerable and experienced student of psychical research, Professor Donald West (one of the critics) has observed, apropos supposedly paranormal films, that "all one needs is a pristine film inserted in full view with precautions against subsequent surreptitious substitution of a previously prepared film ..." Well, we have it.

Do these negative reactions indicate more than a stereotyped mind-set by some of the guardians of the SPR's standards or something more fundamental: an unwillingness to imply endorsement of paranormal physical phenomena associated with séance room activities because that would push them off the fence of permanent non-commitment. The same confused thinking characterised the chief criticisms levelled at the Scole Report. To this day there has been no attempt to meet the challenges which the authors of the Report made to critics. The SPR has sold some £2500 worth of copies of the Scole Report despite taking no steps to advertise or promote it. The fears which were widely expressed at the time of its publication — that it would split the Society and expose it to public ridicule — have not been justified. What criticisms there have been of the Report have concentrated entirely on what are generally seen to be the inability of its principal critics to acknowledge the weakness of their objections and the cumulatively overwhelming evidence against fraud.

It was Andrew Lang, about a century ago, who pointed out that scepticism applied no less to the extravagantly improbable assumptions often needed to support a non-paranormal explanation as it does to the paranormal explanation itself. Put another way, if the mountain of assumptions needed to argue that a large number of ostensibly paranormal demonstrations, events, messages, artifacts, sights and sounds, could all have been faked becomes more offensive to commonsense than the claim which it is seeking to torpedo, then scepticism should rightly be directed against the mountain-builder. In the case I have described, the sceptic has no option but to accuse the experimenters themselves of having concocted the whole story and perpetrated a disreputable hoax. That would comfortably surpass the boggle threshold of all but a dedicated fanatic, so we are entitled to reverse the roles, and apply scepticism to the non-paranormal explanation.

If you have watched the series of programmes on Sky TV's Living and Discovery channels during the summer months, you will grasp my meaning. One series of "Most haunted" features an intrepid band under the direction of a slightly hysterical lady, aided by a remarkable psychic, Derek Acorah, a tame but quite sensible paranormalist ghost-hunter, who seek to capture oddities in some of the most haunted places in the British Isles. They have frequently caught moving orbs of light on screen, and more recently recorded in Derby Gaol (and several times replayed) the shifting of a wooden cross placed on a marked sheet of paper in a sealed room with nothing but an infra-red video camera to monitor it.

Unfortunately the programmes contravene the statutory requirement to wheel on a sceptic whose job is to show that the orbs are really only floating particles of dust, that an unexpected gust of wind must have shifted the cross and ruffled the paper on which it was standing, and that vivid imagination, heightened by fear and expectation, can account for all the rest. As for the people who have seen ghosts, that's down to imagination too. It's more difficult when two or more people have similar experiences, and strangers with no prior knowledge of a haunting reputation encounter the same phantasm.

But what of Mr. Acorah's uncanny ability to identify the names and circumstances of ghosts in places he has never previously visited, details which correspond precisely to known historical events and records? Well here the sceptic must fall back on the airy dismissal of all TV shows that are primarily for entertainment, and are not subjected to the rigorous scrutiny of trained observers operating in controlled conditions. Yet what does this all too familiar evasion actually imply? It means that Acorah has been given prior briefing; that the producer and all the team of aides on and off screen, literally scores of them, must have been participating in a deliberate piece of public deception, liable to exposure at any time by any one involved.

That explanation becomes still more far-fetched when we turn to the regular crossing-over performances of John Edward. In both cases, details of deceased relatives far beyond the limits of chance coincidence are given to members of the audience. No amount of fishing, body language or platform bluster can account for many of the specific details given: only genuine paranormal communication or elaborate fraud. But the latter would have to involve scores of people apart from the medium himself, and they would include all those superb actors and actresses in the audience who fake their astonishment, their embarrassment, their tears and their post-reading inquests in elaborating a series of lies concocted with the aid of researchers and orchestrated by unscrupulous deceivers.

Which explanation is more worthy of sceptical treatment?


Errors in 'Sceptical' Thinking by Montague Keen
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