A Sceptical View of Dr. French

Montague Keen
Magonia 71, June 2000

As a useful defence mechanism against madness, non-fictional book reviewers employ a few shortcuts before deciding how much of their precious time should be spent slogging through hefty tomes which turn out to be largely worthless. If say the index of a guide to English Literature turns out to have seven references to Enid Blyton, five to Jeffrey Archer, and one each to Shakespeare, Dickens and Thackeray, they may be forgiven for suspecting that no more than a hour of time and two inches of column type need be dedicated to their task.
Or take a study of the conflict between Creationists and Darwinists: if the bibliography mentions only works favouring one side rather than the other, one can safely assume that the book is unlikely to warrant commendation to readers as an example of objectivity. whatever its merits.

I have found this short cut invaluable when reading books (mainly published by Prometheus, the organ of the skeptical movement in the USA) or articles, especially in the Skeptical Enquirer or the Skeptic, dealing with the paranormal in general, and psychical research in particular. Just as they tend to avoid citing those works which present evidence unpalatable to the author’s prejudices, so the resolute sceptic will vigorously and righteously assail phony, sloppy or extravagant claims of paranomality but steer clear of a straight confrontation with evidence which is so convincing that they are left with nothing to support their convictions but accusations of mass fraud or deliberate cheating by experimenters.

I spoke at the same SPR conference at which Chris gave his paper on the manner in which the media treat the paranormal (on which he based the prize-winning entry published in your last issue), and found myself agreeing with much of what he said. My complaint is against his selectivity. He focused on The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna to support his thesis. It is unfortunate that he should have given so much prominence to a much flaunted experiment by Richard Wiseman et al purportedly contesting the claim that a dog called Jaytee had a telepathic rapport with its owner, when Chris ought to have been aware of the far more extensive tests undertaken on this dog by Rupert Sheldrake and published most recently in his book Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, showing overwhelming evidence that Jaytee did in fact possess such powers. Still, Chris could hardly have realised, when citing the Wiseman paper published in the British Journal of Psychology, that this august journal doesn’t believe in the paranormal, or in publishing Sheldrake’s refutations of misstatements.

Having sat through two of McKenna’s programmes and participated in one, I am surprised (well, not really) that to maintain the posture of objectivity, Chris couldn’t have mentioned a few of the rather more objective episodes, or even their decision to show their objectivity by screening the unmasking of the cheating psychokinetic claimant, Jean-Pierre Guard. What about Valery Lavrinenko’s bio-PK demonstration in raising and lowering from normal to 140 and back down to a perilous 35 the blood pressure of a monitored patient in a distant room; or the video clip of Rene Pe’och’s celebrated experiments with day-old chicks, fixated on a robot whose random movements the chicks were clearly able to influence: or the demonstration of the famous distance viewer (i.e. clairvoyant), Joe McMoneagle or his capacity to describe with reasonable accuracy the scene being viewed by a third party; or Dean Radin’spretty decisive PK demonstration showing how a random number generator was significantly affected by the vibes, or whatever, generated by heaven knows how many million eager viewers as the listened to the outcome of the O. J. Simpson trial.

Then there was the twin experiment, showing the physiologically measured changes in one remotely separated twin when a disguised powder keg blew up in front of her sibling during the show. How come no reference to these? On the basis of what evidence ought we conclude that all these were either fraudulent or seriously defective in the rigour of their experimental procedure? Is entertainment inherently and inevitably incompatible with occasional honesty?

But beyond the McKenna programmes, there have been a spate of others which occasionally confront the statutory sceptic (TV producers consider themselves under a duty, in the interests of the god Balance, to find a sceptic who can explain away some apparently remarkable phenomenon). I recall one devoted entirely to one of the most famous physical mediums of the twentieth century, Helen Duncan, jailed in 1944 for 18 months under the Witchcraft Act. Duncan was stripped, examined in vaginum et rectum, which modesty prevents me from translating, garbed into some form of ladies’ straitjacket, and on occasions orally administered a dye to see whether her ectoplasmic discharges were no more than regurgitated butter-muslin – the theory of the surplus stomach having been decisively disproved – and was none the less able when in a trance to have ectoplasm issuing from various orifices to assume the forms and develop the features of dear departed. When the sceptical expert, who had actually been present at her trial, was invited to explain where the ectoplasm had come from, he confidently asserted that it must have all been concealed in her rectum.


One must in fairness acknowledge
Chris to be among the less dogmatic sceptics,
and liable with the rest of us to squirm
when confronted by sheer bigotry
This is a case where the sceptical explanation is seen by the viewer to be even more improbable than the miracle it purports to account for in non-paranormal terms. It therefore satisfies the criterion in David Hume’s theory of miracles. However, one must in fairness acknowledge Chris to be among the less dogmatic sceptics, and liable with the rest of us to squirm when confronted by sheer bigotry, and at least he doesn’t serve as an editorial adviser to that institution of devout disbelievers, the so-called CSICOP, as do three of his sceptical colleagues. My complaint is that he follows their practice of either ignoring persuasive but discomforting evidence of the paranormal or, if pinned against a wall, resorting to the excuse that while the results of the phenomenon might not be readily explicable in accord with current scientific beliefs, it’s pretty certain that sooner or later someone will come up with an answer. On that basis nothing novel can ever be satisfactorily demonstrated.

Take precognitive messages. Chris has trotted out the usual pseudo-mathematical explanation, that if you multiply all the dreams by the number of nights people have in which to dream them, the chances are that one or other of them will sooner or later bear some resemblance to some corresponding later event in their lives. I’ve challenged Chris on this spurious get-out in the past, but I’ll give him due notice of an event which will form part of a peer-reviewcd paper to be published later this year, and ask whether his probability theory is still adequate.

A professional medium received a message from a deceased mother to the effect that he will be seeing her daughter shortly and wishes to convey to her a favourite prayer. Impressed, the medium searches out the prayer and has it laminated and gift wrapped. He takes it to a sitting held in laboratory-controlled conditions three days later in a distant university to give a blind reading to an unknown sitter. At the conclusion of the sitting the experimenter passes the gift to the sitter, who promptly bursts into tears on reading her mother’s favourite prayer.

Now what has this got to do with Chris French? Quite a lot really, despite the fact that this message did not arrive in a dream. It raises the same question however: could this all have happened by chance? It’s an unusual but not an exceptional example of where very memorable traumatic dreams are shortly followed by incidents so precise, specific and unusual that a sceptic confronted with it can only resort to accusations of invention or fraud.

How does Chris treat cases like this? Answer: he follows the orthodox and safe practice of ignoring them. How many of his students, for whom, God help us, he provides courses in parapsychology at Goldsmith’s College, know of the scores of such cases recorded in the Census of Hallucinations more than a century ago? How many have even heard of the outcome of the twenty years’ long investigation into the mediumship of Mrs Leonore Piper, as a result of which some of the most resolute sceptics were painfully converted to the conviction that she was either channelling messages from the dead or, at the very least, was capable of drawing information from the minds of unknown sitters and unknown third parties?

No less spectacular were the results of the proxy (i.e. blind) sittings which experts like Oliver Lodge and Drayton Thomas conducted with Mrs Osborn E. Leonard. Has he ever devoted a single lecture to these giants of the seance room? Is he not aware that my distinguished colleague Professor Archie Roy four or five years ago publicly threw down the gauntlet to sceptics everywhere by drawing attention to some of the best known and most impressively evidential cases on record, beseeching the critics to offer explanations, and receiving not a whisper in response?

On the questionable basis that truth decays as iron rusts, people like Chris can argue that many of these cases took place long ago. Or they may simply seek safety in silence. But it is becoming so that this can’t last much longer. The overwhelming evidence from laboratory based research into psychokinesis, telepathy and clairvoyance can’t be ignored or derided indefinitely. Their results can be attributed to chance only one in several million, occasionally billion, times. The intensity of criticism that such experiments attracted in the past has resulted in protocols so loophole free that even the most formidable of critics, the champion put forward by the notorious CSICOP organisation, Professor Ray Hyman, has been forced to acknowledge that the odds against a chance explanation of some of the results are astronomical.

Psychology lecturers who wish to give their students a smattering of knowledge about parapsychology rely on standard textbooks. Almost always they present “nearly incredible falsification of the facts about experiments.” That was what Irwin Child, the chairman of Yale University’s department of psychology, concluded after examining most of the then (1985) current textbooks.
A more recent (1991) study by psychologist Miguel Roig and colleagues of 64 introductory psychology textbooks found that one third of them made no mention of parapsychology, several of those which did presented the zener card calling tests as still typical of current experimental work, and all of those which did mention spontaneous cases explained them away in terms of misunderstood sensory processes, coincidence and self-deception. They thereby ignored the fact that methods have long since been employed by every self-respecting researcher in this field to eliminate all of these obvious weaknesses even when dealing with evidential mediumship or independently validated precognitive dreams, or multiple witnesses of poltergeist activity and the like. Of those textbooks which did refer to experimental work, nearly all criticised the lack of replication, poor experimental design and fraud.

Now the average run-of-the-mill psychology lecturer can be forgiven if he relies upon the accuracy and fairness of textbooks to guide his students. But for the few who have first-hand knowledge of the subject, and who know, or certainly ought to know, that all the last three criticisms are simply untrue, it is difficult to grope around for excuses. Either they know that their students are being indoctrinated by information on the subject which is not just misleading or inadequate but simply false, as Dean Radkin’s book The Conscious Universe makes strikingly clear, or they don’t. In the former case they invite the charge of hypocrisy. In the latter case they face the accusation of incompetence.

It is all very, well to proclaim, as Chris does, that he is “generally unconvinced” by the evidence. It is quite another to engage in a frank examination of that evidence to show where it is faulty; and as far as I am aware this is what Chris doesn’t do. Nor, one has to say, do most of his equally prominent colleagues, although from time to time one or other (mainly one) of them will seize upon a famous historic case and seek to show, by piling one improbable and unproven assumption on another, how it might all be explained by fraud.

It is healthy and desirable to emphasis the need for the utmost caution in evaluating the evidence, let alone setting up experiments, in parapsychology. It is important to understand the history and psychology of deception in this murky field. It is vital to appreciate the unreliability of human witness, memory and testimony, even those of multiple witnesses. But where, over the years, experiments in the gansfield or in random number generated psychokinesis tests, have eliminated all of these dangers, and done so to the satisfaction of resolute critics, and the results have nevertheless been highly significant and frequently replicated, it is verging on the dishonourable to suppress this information and churn out students with the now traditional prejudices which have so seriously impeded research.

Of course, people like Chris – and there are only a handful of them in these teaching roles – may yet undergo conversion. But then bang goes that prospective professorship. and in come the taunts and jibes of ones peers. Not an easy option.

Montague Keen (1925 - 2004, pictured above) was a long-time member of the Society for Psychical Research. He was a co-author of a report on the ‘Scole Experiment’ which is reviewed HERE. This article is a response to 'The Media and the Paranormal', by Dr Chris French, published in Magonia 70.