Deborah Blum, 2006
No EMF meters, infrared cameras or orbs here. If you want that, consult How to Hunt Ghosts by Joshua Warren (a curious read, in my opinion).
This book is about the history of the Society of Psychical Research (British and American versions). My favorite books on this subject are by Brian Inglis (Natural and Supernatural: A History of the Paranormal from Earliest Times to 1914 and Science and Parascience). But, this book is written with William James as the primary focus. Other interesting folks come and go. I especially liked the story of psychic extraordinaire Leonora Piper.
The tales of the psychics are sad. They are misunderstood and exploited, by themselves and others. In a particular place in time, were their abilities strong, only to fade from them later on when they resorted to cheating? Or, was fraud always a component?
Did the rampant fraud fatally skewer any scientific seriousness associated with research on this topic? Yes. And I would propose that it happens in other fields today – cryptozoology, UFOlogy and, continuing in parapsychology. Unless they leave behind the attitude of paranormal spookiness inherent in their origin, they won’t progress.
Another parallel is when a subject falls between two bodies of knowledge. Psychical research was squeezed between established religion and unyielding science. Neither would give in. The subject was perceived as an enemy to both.
I enjoyed this book. These people, their theories and experiences feel real. When science began to pronounce experiences as fantasy or fraud, people continued to report them as real.
William James struggled throughout his career to make sense of it all – conducting experiments, studying the literature, trying to theorize about the mechanisms. In the end, he was no farther along the path to legitimize psychic phenomena in the eyes of esteemed scientific colleagues. Here we are. Still.
This makes me doubt the reality of psi. What is it? Why can’t we grasp it?
Thoughts that came to my mind when I cogitated about this are: Is there some physiological, environmental or atmospheric conditions that would aid or impede psychic experience? If the claims are legitimate, was there some reason that psychic “powers” peaked at this time in history only to wane in years to come? Could that be why it was so elusive to these researchers? Is there some truth to the possibility that some of us may be so rationally-minded that we fail to experience what others may grasp? If the latter is the case, it’s likely genetic, the way my brain is organized. It would make me disappointed to know that while I want so much to experience it, I physically couldn’t.
The author admits in the acknowledgments that she started a skeptic but ended up conflicted when she could not rectify the stories and experimental results. I noticed that the light she shined on the stories is more credulous than not. It is most difficult, but necessary, to first establish if the event really occurred as one perceived or was told. For these stories, one experiences insecurity about where to proceed with this information. Psychic research has insecure foundations.
Failure is one inevitable theme of the book and the ending isn’t a happy one. My opinion is that psychic powers are so unreliable, weak or provides such trivial information that it effectively doesn’t exist, if it exists at all. Until there is a genuine mechanism, it falls totally flat in scientific circles.
However, I’ll quote from the author, the best line in the book:
“There were days when I could feel the hinges of my brain, almost literally, creaking apart to make room for new ideas”.
That’s why I read and explore these topics. They are so darn fascinating. That’s why I cautiously recommend this book to all interested in Fortean ideas, science, and spiritualism.